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The Whirligig

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 21, 2017

Zosia Mamet and Jonny Orsini
Photo by Monique Carboni

Questions of blame, shame, and culpability lie just beneath the surface as estranged family members, friends, repentant drug dealers, and casual acquaintances gather to say their last goodbyes to a terminally ill young addict, in Hamish Linklater's quirky, tender, and often quite funny play The Whirligig, having its debut in a terrifically-acted production by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Don't go looking for a grand dramatic arc within the thinly-plotted play. This is a work that focuses its lens on the interactions among various permutations of the characters, laid out in beautifully-scripted short scenes that flow from one to another by virtue of the production's revolving stage. The overall effect is perhaps more like a kaleidoscope than it is of a spinning pinwheel, as suggested by the title.

Meanwhile, a fitting subtitle for The Whirligig might be "one degree of separation," for all roads ultimately lead to 23-year-old Julie (Grace Van Patten), whom we first see lying half asleep in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV. Sitting on either side of her are her anxious parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells). At a glance, you can tell you are looking at a strained relationship. Michael is sitting very close to the bed, while Kristina has her chair pulled a couple of feet away. And when Julie wants to say something to Mom, she whispers to Dad and has him relate it to Kristina.

Yet for whatever accusatory signaling lies beneath it all, everything is handled with a light touch. Julie and Michael share a gallows humor that they both use to keep the scary stuff at bay, and Kristina, who divorced Michael some years before, seems to take it in her stride that she is often on the receiving end of their sometimes macabre jokes. In this scene, for example, Julie asks her mom to stand on the other side of the screen that surrounds her hospital bed. When Kristina complies, Julie whispers something softly, and than asks her mom: "Could you hear me? Can you see me?" Then when Kristina says, "No," Julie tosses out her punch line: "That's what its gonna be like when I'm dead. Mwaaaaahahahahahaaa."

Then the turntable spins, and we are in the home shared by two brothers, Derrick (Jonny Orsini) and Patrick (Noah Bean), who is Julie's doctor. We learn of Derrick's connection to Julie later in the play, but what we do notice here is that although Derrick is close to 30, he is quite dependent on his brother and that the two are very close, even if they communicate mostly by roughhousing and discussing baseball. In casual conversation, Patrick reveals some identifying information about his patient, Julie, not realizing that Derrick actually knows her.

Click. And another spin of the set. We are now in a bar for a scene with the bartender Greg (Alex Hurt), a very drunk regular customer (Jon DeVries), and Michael. Amid the bar talk about Russian literature and Billy Joel songs, we learn that Michael has fallen off the wagon after being sober for seven years; his order of a Diet Coke falls by the wayside as he begins drinking wine.

The final character and the last link to Julie is her one-time closest friend Trish (Zosia Mamet). We get a sense of their friendship in a flashback to when they were both 17, at a time just before their casual pot smoking was about to take Julie down the same path to addiction her father has long trod, though with drugs instead of alcohol.

And so, around and around, these short scenes unfold the story, until we are back, full circle, to blame, shame, and culpability. Who among Julie's family and acquaintances might have intervened earlier on and helped to pull her back from plummeting into addiction? This is the question that hangs over each of the characters, all of whom have played a critical role at some juncture in Julie's short life. As everyone gathers at Michael's home to say their farewells, this question remains existentially unanswerable.

What is exceptional about The Whirligig is not the artificiality of the thread of connections among the characters. The play's broad and ambitious theme of our collective responsibility to one another in this crazy world takes a back seat to the production itself. The power of the play lies within its individual scenes, each of which is a self-contained mini-drama, often situated in some very funny moments (such as the one where Derrick and Trish wind up sitting together in a tree in Michael's backyard). Credit Scott Elliott's direction, Derek McLane's set design, Jeff Croiter's lighting, and the outstanding performances by a stellar and eminently talented cast for making The Whirligig as fully engaging as it assuredly is.

The Whirligig
Through June 18
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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