By Tulis McCall
Hamish Linklater knows from relationships. In The New Group’s The Whirligig now at Pershing Square Signature Center, he lays them out like a card shark fanning a deck. You can take your pick. Father/Daughter. Mother/Daughter. Father/Mother. Daughter/Friend. Friend/Husband. Husband/Bar Customer. That is enough to get you started. The writing, combined with fine, fine performances and a sensitive touch by director Scott Elliott, makes for a mighty fine evening of theatre. So fine that a person could almost forget that this play needs a trim – short on the sides and a little off the top, thank you.
The story takes place in present time in the Berkshires. Not the Berkshires of summer visitors but the Berkshires of the townies, the year-round folks. Julie (Grace Van Patten) is all of 23 and on her way out of life. The reasons for this are given a quick nod and never flushed out, but Linklater’s focus is more on the people and less the circumstances. Suffice to say everyone is drawn into Julie’s shrinking orbit, and to tell the tale we must go back 15 years when everything began.
There we meet Julie’s best friend Trish (Zosia Mamet). These two have girl crushes on each other because they are BFF’s. Recreation includes going almost all the way with boys – or in Trish’s case doing the deed with her actual boyfriend Greg (Alex Hurt). There are the occasional drug scores – smoking marijuana at home with the parents nearby and was that cocaine? Other than the fact that Julie’s parents Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells) appear to be driving their marriage off a cliff, everything is normal. Except of course it is not. Michael is a frustrated thespian who is considering jobs that he doesn’t really want and drinking his way into AA. Kristina is a published author about to swan off to Harvard. And Julie is left on her own to figure things out. Julie has no business being on her own.
The play moves easily back and forth between then and now. Linklater is in no hurry to move the plot along, which, especially in the first 20 or so minutes, causes the story to get bogged down. What saves everything is his masterful work creating these characters. Each person is a fully formed hunk of damaged goods. Some are very, very funny – as in hilarious – (Mamet and John DeVries as Mr. Cormeny especially) and the dialogue is written with astonishing precision. The actors are so consistent in meeting the high bar that Linklater sets that my theatre companion remarked he could not remember enjoying watching an ensemble’s work so much in years. True this. Watching this production is like watching a choreographed tennis match. There are lobs, volleys, aces, net balls and wild faults. Noah Bean, Alex Hurt and Johnny Orsini each play men who are entwined with Julie’s life like time-released molotov cocktails. Each of the actors relies on one another to knit the story together while we watch. All these messed up people overlap into everyone else’s territory until what seemed like individual paths converge as one.
So exquisite is some of the writing that many of the scenes (and that is how it plays out, as a series of scenes between different pairings) reveal themselves to be tiny one-act plays. Complete and able to stand alone if one were to ask. Captivating on all levels. And nearly each one is overwritten by a few tads.
In addition, the last third of the play, wanders out of the barn and out of the corral. Linklater’s attempt to connect all the dots drags on, and on, and on, with the final scene being almost comical in its staging. I doubt this was the intention. The actors rally to keep the boat afloat up until the last moments. All ends well. But too long is too long, no matter how you slice it. Extra words do not a better story make. On the plus side, this is such a fine production that Linklater should be able to see how strong his writing is and take the appropriate steps to trim this puppy down to the essentials. It is a jewel in the making. So close.
The Whirligig by Hamish Linklater, Directed by Scott Elliott
WITH Noah Bean, Norbert Leo Butz, Jon DeVries, Alex Hurt, Zosia Mamet, Jonny Orsini, Grace Van Patten and Dolly Wells.
Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by M.L. Dogg, Original Music by Duncan Sheik, Special Effects Design by Jeremy Chernick and Fight Direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House.
The New Group, Scott Elliott Artistic Director, Adam Bernstein Executive Director in association with Lisa Matlin Present The Whirligig through June 18 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Tickets.