Derrick (Jonny Orsini) and his brother, Patrick (Noah Bean), argue over baseball, beer, and more in The Whirligig (photo by Monique Carboni)
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 18, $75-$120
When the audience enters the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the curtain is up, exhibiting a young woman lying on a hospital bed. She is hooked up to an IV drip and revolving slowly around the stage, surrounded by thick horizontal tree branches on either side, bursting with green leaves. She is twenty-three-year-old Julie Evans Tyler (Grace Van Patten), who is dying in the Berkshires. She is joined by her divorced parents, Kristina (Dolly Wells) and Michael Tyler (Norbert Leo Butz), who are trying their best to face the reality of the situation but are not succeeding very well. “Do you think it’s your fault?” Julie asks her mother. Actor and writer Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig, a New Group world premiere that opened last night at the Griffin, is an emotionally powerful drama about love and addiction, friendship and responsibility, and what encompasses “fault,” as the truth about how Julie arrived at death’s door is gradually revealed. The tale is told by her tightly enmeshed group of friends and neighbors — and just how tightly bound they are to one another is gradually revealed as well. “I know specifically when it turned, when things got really bad for her — and it wasn’t the mom, it wasn’t the dad — I know the exact day it happened,” Derrick (Jonny Orsini), the brother of Julie’s doctor, Patrick (Noah Bean), tells Julie’s former best friend, Trish (Zosia Mamet), who has yet to visit the hospital or talk at all to Kristina and Michael. Trish is married to Greg (Alex Hurt), a former acting student of Michael’s and a bartender in Great Barrington who regularly serves Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), a bloviating former high school teacher who waxes not-quite-poetic about the Russians but occasionally does pick up on human emotions. “I just hope Mr. Tyler’s OK,” Patrick says after Michael falls off the wagon and Greg helps him outside. “Him? Oh no. That poor gentleman is in a whirligig of grief,” Mr. Cormeny says as he heads behind the bar. “There is a silver lining, howsomever: I’m de facto barkeep. Tipple?” the septuagenarian offers.
A bar is one of several rotating sets by Derek McLane in Hamish Linklater’s world premiere for the New Group (photo by Monique Carboni)
Linklater’s narrative weaves seamlessly between the present day, where, among other things, Trish and Derrick spy on Julie from a high branch in a tree, and fifteen years earlier, as carefree teenagers Julie and Trish talk about sex and drugs, Michael battles the bottle, and Kristina tries not to lose her grip. It’s quite fitting that Michael and Kristina met at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Virginia and that their favorite poem is “Annabel Lee.” As Julie deteriorates, her friends, relatives, and acquaintances, each connected, whether they know it or not, like the branches of a tree, argue over how and why it has all come to this. The torrent of revelations could overwhelm the story but instead helps everything fall into place, although there are no simple answers to the main questions. Linklater, who was born in Great Barrington to a mother named Kristin (a theater professor and cofounder of Shakespeare & Co.) and a father whose last name was Cormeny, is better known as an actor, appearing in such films as The Big Short and 42, such television series as The New Adventures of Old Christine and The Crazy Ones, and such Shakespeare in the Park productions as Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing. He has previously written The Vandal for the Steep Theatre in Chicago and The Cheats for the Flea in Lower Manhattan, and he has made a significant jump now with his third play.
Julie (Grace Van Patten) and Trish (Zosia Mamet) share a sweet moment before it all came crashing down in The Whirligig (photo by Monique Carboni)
“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” Feste tells Malvolio in the fifth act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The title of Linklater’s play could refer to a pinwheel, time, or even a medieval torture involving a revolving cage used to discipline “trifling misdemeanors,” particularly committed by women. The Whirligig investigates punishment and revenge, as well as forgiveness and making amends, told with a clever circularity, with well-developed characters and a tightly written script that, despite some bumps and bruises — the scene in which Kristina celebrates her thirty-fifth birthday in the bar with Michael could use some rethinking — bring it all together, complete with unexpected twists and turns. Director Scott Elliott (Evening at the Talk House, Mercury Fur) successfully circumnavigates through the rotating set and two time periods, which occasionally appear to merge, as past and present clash. The cast is excellent, with standout performances by DeVries (Sweet and Sad, The Wayside Motor Inn), Orsini (The Nance, Incident at Vichy), Wells (Blunt Talk, Doll & Em) and Mamet (Girls, Really Really). So whose fault is it that Julie is in the situation she’s in? “Everyone knows everyone tonight, and I don’t recognize a soul,” Mr. Cormeny says at one point. The Whirligig is populated with people who have some serious soul searching to do of their own, and it’s about a lot more than just who is to blame.