'The Whirligig': Theater Review

The Whirligig Production Still - Publicity - H 2017
Monique Carboni
Despite excellent performances, this overly convoluted play spins its own wheels.

The friends and family members of a dying 23-year-old girl interact in this comedy-drama written by actor Hamish Linklater.

You sure can tell that the new play getting its world premiere courtesy of The New Group was written by an actor. It brims with juicy roles, offering scenery-chewing opportunities of both the comedic and dramatic variety. It also boasts an admirable thematic texture. Unfortunately, Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig all too accurately lives up to its title both literally and figuratively, spinning its wheels for nearly two and a half hours. And although the show boasts some fine performances, they’re insufficient reward for the ways in which the production strains theatergoers’ patience.

Linklater, best known for his stage work and roles on the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine and Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, has previously written such plays as The Vandal, which was broadcast on PBS, and The Cheats, produced in Chicago. It’s easy to imagine him stepping into several of the roles in his comedy-drama concerning a dying 23-year-old woman being cared for by her divorced parents.

The play begins in the hospital room of Julie (Grace Van Patten), a drug addict now terminally ill as a result of her habit. After her doctor, Patrick (Noah Bean), advises her parents Michael (two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells, of HBO’s Doll & Em) that there’s nothing more to be done, Michael takes their daughter to his house in the Berkshires to spend her final days.

We then see the exhausted Patrick returning to the home he shares with his younger brother Derrick (Jonny Orsini), where they jovially spar over Patrick being late for the baseball game they had planned to watch over beer and pizza. And then things get complicated.

The ensuing non-linear plotting proves confusing at first, with scenes alternating between past and present and the characters’ relationships only slowly coming into focus. We’re eventually introduced to such figures as Trish (Zosia Mamet, Girls), Julie’s best friend in high school, now a mother of two; her husband Greg (Alex Hurt), a bartender at the watering hole that the not-so-recovering alcoholic Michael used to frequent; and Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), Julie’s former high school social-studies teacher and a full-blown drunk.

In flashbacks we see Julie and Trish bonding over such activities as writing letters to imaginary boyfriends; Michael drunkenly whiling the night away at Greg’s bar; and Derrick falling for Julie at their first meeting when he delivers her drugs. The action set in the present includes an encounter between Derrick and Trish outside Michael’s house during which they sit precariously on a tall tree limb to get a better view of the bedroom in which Julie is lying unconscious.

Linklater has cited Shakespeare’s romance plays as an inspiration for this tale driven by coincidences and unlikely pairings. But while the surface stylistic similarities are apparent, The Whirligig never overcomes its strained overwriting and overplotting. There’s genuine emotion at its core and no shortage of wit in the dialogue, featuring generous doses of dark humor. But you can always feel the mechanical wheels whirring in this play performed on a revolving stage.   

Director Scott Elliott toils to provide cohesion to the disjointed proceedings but proves unable to overcome the overall artifice. (It doesn’t help that we find ourselves becoming concerned for Orsini and Mamet’s safety as they perch on the branch that rises and falls.) But Elliott has certainly elicited fine performances from the large cast. The standouts are Butz (seen lately on Netflix's Bloodline), who mines Michael’s despair and frequently comic rage for all it’s worth, and Mamet, who garners big laughs with Trish’s droll asides. DeVries is also terrific, even though his perpetually befuddled, drunken character registers as little more than comic relief.

With this latest effort, Linklater proves himself a clearly promising playwright, capable of crafting complex characterizations and situations that both touch the heart and tickle the funny bone. It’s also apparent that he can write juicy roles for his peers. Now he just needs to harness some creative discipline to accompany his burgeoning talent.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Noah Bean, Norbert Leo Butz, Jon DeVries, Alex Hurt, Zosia Mamet, Jonny Orsini, Grace Van Patten, Dolly Wells
Playwright: Hamish Linklater
Director: Scott Elliott
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Music: Duncan Sheik
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by The New Group