Julie is young, pretty, literate and dying. At its best, “The Whirligig,” a new play by Hamish Linklater, explores with humor and bite how her terminal illness affects the seven people around her – friends, family, and long-ago acquaintances who are all year-round residents of the Berkshires. Linklater is also interested in how each of his characters may be complicit directly or indirectly in her condition, which is exacerbated by her drug addiction.
But the playwright, who grew up in the Berkshires himself, is intent on leavening this realistic trauma drama with elements of romantic and classic comedy, including an almost happy ending. A late scene is so dizzy with revelations of previously undisclosed connections between the characters (many of which the characters themselves were unaware of, or forgot) that it could pass as a parody of a soap opera. (“That’s a lot to digest,” one of the characters remarks.)
Such unlikely coincidences and contrivances might have sunk completely a different production and a different new play. But Linklater, who is best known as a performer (a familiar actor in Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte), manages to salvage the play’s odd mix of the forlorn, funny and fanciful, by creating appealing and playable characters, who are portrayed, under Scott Elliott’s careful direction, by a fine eight-member cast.
Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can) is Michael Tyler, Julie’s Dad, a theater director and drama teacher who was a recovering alcoholic…until a relapse, apparently caused by Julie’s illness. “That poor gentleman is in a whirligig of grief,” observes Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), a fellow drunk and fellow teacher, though not in the same school, and there doesn’t seem to be much fellowship between them. But Butz — who, like the best New York stage actors, elevates every show I’ve ever seen him in — doesn’t play Michael as just a loser; he’s a humorous and energetic man who has earned his caustic wit.
Dolly Wells is Michael’s ex-wife Kristina, who now has her depression under control, but was more mothered than a mother when Julie was growing up.
Zosia Mamet (Girls on HBO) is Trish, Julie’s former best friend, now estranged, who also is apparently enemies with Kristina. Trish is a young mother now, and married to Greg (Alex Hurt.)
Noah Bean is Julie’s doctor Patrick, and Jonny Orsini is Patrick’s brother Derrick, who is on parole, and has a baffling interest in Julie’s case (baffling until those raft of revelations at the end.) Before that ending, Derrick and Trish – who think they’ve never met before — wind up sitting on a tree branch in Julie’s back yard.
“The Whirligig” shifts back and forth in time between the present and 15 years earlier, so that we learn how they each became estranged from one another. The design team is adept at keeping the places and periods clear, and helping to infuse what on paper would seem an unrelieved dark tale with a sense of wonder.
The New Group at Signature
Written by Hamish Linklater
Directed by Scott Elliott
Scenic Design Derek McLane Costume Design Clint Ramos Lighting Design Jeff Croiter
Sound Design M.L. Dogg Original Music Duncan Sheik Special Effects Design Jeremy Chernick
Cast: Noah Bean, Norbert Leo Butz, Jon DeVries, Alex Hurt, Zosia Mamet, Jonny Orsini, Grace Van Patten, Dolly Wells
The Whirligig will be on stage at the Signature Center through June 18, 2017