Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Norbert Leo Butz

The Whirligig– Splendid Theater


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

The New Group presents
The Whirligig by Hamish Linklater
Directed by Scott Elliott
Pershing Square Signature Center   480 West 42nd Street
Through June 18, 2017

Norbert Leo Butz: Girls, Girls, Girls – Wowza!


“…you’re all here because I have to talk…I’m having an issue with women…” Immediately up front and personal, Norbert Leo Butz has no problem dispensing with the fourth wall. His rambunctious demeanor and casual attire (apparently H&M) seem to make him one of ‘us,’ albeit with the kinetic energy of a pinball machine and a wellspring of heady talent. Familiar only with the artist’s formidable body of work on Broadway, I was unprepared for the musical tsunami that ensued.

Butz has three daughters, three sisters, a wife and ex-wife, mothers-in-law, 17 nieces – in fact, immeasurable estrogen in his life. “Even the dog is a woman.” They all kept telling him he didn’t get it. When a savvy friend suggested he look at archetypes, “common denominators based on preliterate myths,” Butz started to research Greek goddesses. Girls, Girls, Girls, apparently a revival, reframes iconic myths in millennial vernacular, each paired with an unexpected musical number. What may sound academic is, in fact, a mesmerizing storm of storytelling and song.

…Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in karate/Working for the city/She has to discipline her body…(“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part I”-The Flaming Lips) represents Athena, Goddess of War. Yes, that eclectic. Butz, in constant, kinetic movement, bounces, jerks up his knee, and practically uproots the microphone stand, one seemingly spastic arm gesturing.

Queen Hera, goddess of marriage and family comes next. Expecting her husband to be productive, kind and faithful, she instead got Zeus “who couldn’t keep his lightening bolt in his pants.” The tale is reflected by Loretta Lynn’s “Mrs. Leroy Brown” about a man who said he wanted babies but instead philanders…Hey Leroy Brown, how do you like my big old pink limo/I just drawed all your money outta the bank today/Honey, you don’t have no mo’…his vengeful spouse declares. It’s a hard-charging, rockabilly hoedown. Butz stamps, screams, growls, and shoves it to the errant Zeus.

Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex had a weakness for military men. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (Kenny Rogers) contains the fervent plea of a wounded veteran. A thumbs-in-the-pocket two-step, the song is poignant. Butz tends to tighten his jaw when performing painful emotions. A verse with only drum accompaniment feels ravaged. He’s invested.

Sinead O’Connor’s “In This Heart” signifies the wail of Demeter for daughter Persephone pulled into the Underworld. With MD/Pianist Michel Moritz Jr. in vocal harmony, Butz imbues the story with dramatic heft between wrenching verses. Melody is sweet, but torn from the gut. “Tecumseh Valley” (Townes Van Zandt) follows with Butz’s soulful, acoustic guitar and slow, emphatic drums swelling to a “rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas)

We hear The Furies ‘depicted’ by Shawn Colvin …She didn’t believe in transcendence/And it’s time for a few small repairs, she said/Sunny came home with a vengeance …as Butz’s throat opens and closes, ratcheting bright and dark. (“Sunny Comes Home.”) and the Muses embodied by aching regret with a David Grey lyric from “Kathleen” including the only instance you’re likely to hear …Toora Loora Toora Loo-Rye Aye…in a rock arrangement so gangbuster bruising it appears as if the artist might spontaneously combust.

“Stacey’s Mom” (Fountain of Wayne) personifies “a quintessential myth.” Butz takes off into the audience to get someone up and dancing. (This one’s a hoot.) Richard Thompson’s “Galway to Graceland” (the Crone) arrives measured, halting, straight from the hip, backed by a guitar solo one can only call resonant sympathy. Butz’s face crumples.

Comparing an aspect of himself to each of these women, the performer comes to the conclusion womanhood is not easy. “Wig in a Box” (Stephen Trask), a trailer park blues…suddenly I’m Miss Beehive 1963…delivered with bite, spit and gumption segues into cacophony, perhaps manifestation of internal turmoil.

I don’t think I’ve ever called out all so many numbers in a show, but each of these contributes to this skillfully structured and written evening. A couple are weapons-grade LOUD, replete with harsh, flashing lights and vocal detonation that to me, slightly diminishes effect, but as a whole, the smart, enthralling piece grabs and holds from the get-go.

Norbert Leo Butz has a stylistic range of which one was hardly aware. He can inhabit sorrow from a convincing emotional core, charm with wit, or let loose manifesting elemental wildness that feels palpably unconditional.

The band is textural, tight and vigorous.

This show was evidently recorded by Broadway Records. I imagine it’s dynamic on CD, but if you can, get yourself to the venue – fully prepared to have your socks knocked off.

Photos by Maryann Lopinto

Norbert Leo Butz: Girls, Girls, Girls
MD/Arrangements/Piano- Michael J. Moritz Jr.
James Leahey-Guitar, Billy LaGuardia-Guitar, Adam DeAscentis-Bass, Khaled Tabbara-Drums
254 West 54th Street
August 8 and 10 at 7 p.m.