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Theatre in Review: The Whirligig (The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center)

Grace Van Patten, Zosia Mamet: Photo: Monique Carboni.

The first thing we see in The Whirligig -- even before the play begins, as we enter the theatre -- is a young woman lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV drip. Her name is Julie, she is 21, and she is dying from a combination of hepatitis C, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and drug addiction -- and Hamish Linklater's intricately plotted, yet emotionally indistinct, play is dedicated to explaining how she has reached this sad terminus.

Julie is attended by her father, Michael, and mother, Kristina; they are divorced and have reunited only for their daughter's death watch. We are also introduced to a gaggle of supporting characters: Patrick, Julie's attending physician; Derrick, Patrick's needy, dependent brother; Greg, a bartender and Michael's AA sponsor; and Trish, Greg's troubled, emotionally distant wife. For a considerable time, Linklater lets them rattle on without making clear how they fit into a coherent dramatic pattern -- but, by the final revolution of the turntable in Derek McLane's set, we learn that each of them has played a part in the chain of circumstances that has brought Julie to death's door.

What is surprising is how little these revelations matter. If The Whirligig -- which jumps back and forth between Julie's last days and ten years earlier -- offered a psychological acuity to match the rigorousness of its plotting, it would have really been something. Instead, the characters hold forth at length, generating occasional heat but very little light. Michael, a theatre director and academic, is a roaring, untidy bear of a man, his endless conversational flow fueled by gallons of wine; it's the kind of role designed to provide Norbert Leo Butz with a tasty meal, and he devours it eagerly, staggering around drunk, falling into rages, and adopting a master thespian voice and gestures when talking about the theatre. His marriage to Kristina, seen in flashbacks, was a contentious, competitive affair that came apart when her career as a writer took off. It's exceedingly difficult to imagine what the cool, composed Kristina ever saw in blustery Michael; it's even harder to accept her as the survivor of crippling depressions, now alleviated by medication. Aside from one out-of-left-field breakdown moment mandated by the script, Dolly Wells gives Kristina a self-possession that is thoroughly at odds with the woman who, we are told but not shown, blighted Julie's youth.

At least Michael and Kristina have fairly clear backstories. For a remarkably long time, the other characters' motivations are left shrouded, a strategy that is sometimes provocative but more often maddening. Why is Patrick so unnerved by Julie's illness? Why is Derrick afraid to leave the house and why does he steal Julie's hospital file from his brother? Why has Trish wandered off, leaving the kids with her mother, and why can't Greg reach her? And why do Trish and Derrick end up sitting on a tree branch overlooking Julie's bedroom, where, discharged from the hospital, she is awaiting the end?

The answers to these questions come in a rush at the play's climax; nevertheless, the narrative is filled with holes, most of them associated with Julie. Her fraught relationship with Kristina is never really explored, nor do we understand why she was so determined to experiment with hard drugs. She dreamt of fleeing the Berkshires, where the play is set, for Greenwich Village, yet we never learn what happened to her in the big city. Despite good work by Grace Van Patten, a strikingly natural fresh face, Julie remains the empty center of her own play, existing only to bring the other characters together in a shared circle of woe.

The rest of the cast does as well as their roles permit. Noah Bean is hamstrung by the underwritten role of Patrick, not least by his jarring eleventh-hour revelation that is out of sync with the character we have seen all night long. Alex Hurt is touching as Greg, who once had dreams of a better life but is now stuck working in the family tavern. As Trish, Zosia Mamet does very well in an extended scene with Julie that demonstrates Linklater's often fine ear for dialogue, but she struggles with aspects of the character, especially in an odd encounter in which she treats Kristina like a contemporary. Because so much information about the character is held back until very late, Jonny Orsini can't entirely make sense of Derrick, the sort of man who is destined to remain a little brother forever. Jon DeVries offers his standard loquacious-old-codger specialty as a boozing high school teacher who gets caught up in the action.

In addition to that turntable, McLane's set, with rigged-to-fly tree branches and an upstage wall that fuses images of trees and houses, has a poetic quality that is sometimes missing from the script. Making fine use of side positions and layers of color, Jeff Croiter's lighting creates a nicely moody summer evening ambiance. Clint Ramos' costumes and M. L. Dogg's sound are both solid achievements, although Duncan Sheik's incidental music sometimes pushes pretty hard to strike a note of melancholy.

Linklater's debut play, The Vandal, also packed more than a few plot twists, but, despite its supernatural aspects, it claimed a connection to the real world that is absent in The Whirligig. In the end, we are asked to care about Julie largely because she is young and fatally ill. After two and a quarter hours of sound and fury signifying so little, this simply isn't reason enough. -- David Barbour

(30 May 2017)

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