Every now and then one encounters a production so well conceived and executed that it seems as if creatives share a single imagination. The densely written, highly literate Whirligig is only actor/playwright Hamish Linklater’s second effort, yet it arrives with the gusto and definition of a practiced hand. Its intricately woven story is akin to a good Sherlock Holmes caper with successive revelations. The message is clear, while individuals wisely eschew simplicity.
Alcoholic actor Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and his ex-wife, manic depressive Kristina (Dolly Wells) have come together after 7 years, shattered by the imminent death of their 23 year-old daughter Julie (Grace Van Patten). Insidious drug addiction has lead to disease that could have been halted if those around her had been paying attention.
Dad is uber-articulate and charming when not angry drunk. Julie, once one of those bright pretty, young women with endless potential, shares his dark sense of humor. She’s a daddy’s girl. Kristina, though tightly wound, is oddly more grounded than either, despite her (now presumably medicated) illness. She provided no example when needed.
Opening at the girl’s hospital bed, we zigzag through time connecting seemingly peripheral people to culpability they share. Almost everyone on stage could have helped if not prevented her death. These include:
Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s attentive doctor, looks after after his maladjusted, housemate brother Derrick (Jonny Orsini) in addition to patients. Each is upset at the fatality for secret and surprising personal reasons. Greg (Alex Hurt) runs the local tavern (a job Patrick had before him). His wife, Trish (Zosia Mamet) was Julie’s best friend and deepest influence growing up. An unspecified breach separated the young women.
The last participating character, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), was a teacher to all the young people now in their twenties. He holds up a bar stool eloquently pontificating. Cormeny might be considered superfluous, but is effectively employed to reveal plot tidbits, character reflection, and to ask questions for the audience. Butz and DeVries deliver two of the most realistic, nuanced inebriates I’ve seen onstage- no small feat. Michael’s been on the wagon. Julie’s illness sent him back to the bottle. This familiar watering hole acts as alternate arena for exorcism/disclosure.
Characters are well drawn and skillfully manifest. Only Patrick is less distinct, perhaps because his involvement is the most surprising and Linklater doesn’t want us to take notice. Noah Bean (Patrick) does a yeoman like job in the single a role without vigorous dramatic turn.
Alex Hurt’s Greg is thoroughly straight arrow and believable. Jonny Orsini (Derrick) is slightly over the top when explosive, but later, appealingly tenuous and sympathetic. Jon DeVries makes the most of Mr. Cormeny creating Linklater’s Shakespearean outsider with humor, shading, and focus. Dolly Wells shows us the loosey goosey, accepting Kristina of early marriage and a taut, self recriminating mother with equal conviction.
Grace Van Patten is an artist who understands subtlety. Julie might’ve appeared an innocuous young woman caught up in her parents’ failings. Instead we see an evolution: coltish love and sweetness, stubborn, self destructive aggression, brief reaching out, and exhausted resignation. There’s a moment when, having played herself in the past, the actress puts back on her hospital gown and we observe her deflate before getting back under covers.
Zosia Mamet’s Trish takes a little getting used to and, as written, engenders less empathy. We see a tough, curt girl and then barely changed, sullen woman so different from her BFF one is repelled but gleans post adolescent attraction. An early conversation with Kristina before the former leaves and one later when she assures her friend’s mother “Drugs are fun, it’s not your fault” bring out the best in the actress. (Why, one might ask the playwright, did Greg marry her?)
In my book, Norbert Leo Butz can do anything. The actor is equally at home as the leading man in a singing/dancing Broadway musical or inhabiting a complex persona. Butz discloses on-stage identity with masterful timing and wonderful physical touches. Prowess is delivering not just a sexy dance with the adored Kristina, but the way his hands absently touch her during dialogue; not only meandering soused exposition that rises as if occurring in real time, but a moment when he makes a beak of a party hat and pecks at a drink. Every theatrical gesture, joke, fall and cry is believable.
Director Scott Elliott has done an inspired job of controlling both visual and emotional ebb and flow. Timing is pristine. The company is cohesive and focused. Everyone listens. ‘A difficult and successfully realized production to which attention should be paid.
Derek McLane’s immensely evocative, revolving set is integral to the play’s inherent meaning and fluency. Large, horizontal tree branches, especially one onto which people climb and sit, work wonderfully. I admit to not understanding a back wall of high, intermittently lit windows in a suburban neighborhood.
Terrific lighting by Jeff Croiter allows scenes to overlap creating psychological bridges. We are, in fact, led.
Photos by Monique Carboni
Opening: Grace Van Patten; Zosia Mamet
Jonny Orsini, Noah Bean
Dolly Wells, Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz, Alex Hurt, Jon DeVries
Zosia Mamet, Jonny Orsini