By: Sandi Durell
Yes, in fact, the turntable stage revolves continuously as Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig makes its points of intertwining the happy, sad and tragic lives of families and friends in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, currently ensconced by The New Group at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center.
The first peek is into the hospital room where a very sick Julie (Grace Van Patten) is hovered over by her concerned parents Michael, a theater teacher and an alcholic (Norbert Leo Butz) and ex-wife Kristina, a history teacher (Dolly Wells). Julie has been distanced from her parents and friends for quite a while. In spite of the gravity of the situation, the conversation is upbeat with many touches of levity as Dad tastes and comments on the awful hospital steak, Julie taking it all with a grain of salt and adding her two cents. Her doctor tells Michael and Kristina to bring her home as there’s nothing more he can do.
As the scene rotates to a living room, Derrick (Jonny Orsini) has evidently just finished a pizza and several bottles of beer while holding a phone conversation about drugs, terrorists and baseball when brother Patrick, who is Julie’s doctor (Noah Bean) arrives. Patrick’s a little pissed that there’s nothing left for him as the conversation turns to why he is late, sparking a questionable interest from Derrick when Patrick reveals more information than allowed about his patient to his probing brother.
The Whirligig continues its turn to a bar inhabited by the local drunk social studies teacher who talks a blue streak as the comic relief, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries) to Greg (Alex Hurt) the bartender. They talk, or mostly Mr. Cormeny yaps continuously, about Russia and famous Russian writers when Michael enters and makes uncomfortable but friendly talk with Greg inquiring about his wife Trish (Zosia Mamet) and their two kids. They reference Kristina, as Mr. Cormeny babbles on about booksandplaysandpoems and paper and Bolshevism.
The conversations are quick-witted, filled with some terrific comedy lines, and part of the contemporary speak – which sometimes you can’t quite follow as words jumble and pour out so rapidly – but the younger folks in the audience laughed at a lot of the lines and seemed in tune.
Julie’s old teen buddy, Trish, appears in the backyard trying to peek into the window where Julie now lies in bed hooked up to hospital equipment when, suddenly, a large tree trunk extends from the wings. Trish finds herself talking to a voice offstage who says he’s also a friend of Julie’s. Eventually (after a lot of chatter) she winds up sitting on the tree branch with a man who now calls himself David (who is really Derrick) as Trish (an unrestrained talker and free thinker) winds up telling him her life story as she sobs while they smoke a joint together. What is divulged is the fact that Derrick became enamored with Julie in previous years when he also became her dealer and supplier.
From this point on, there are many flashbacks including one into the younger world of Julie and Trish as teens, with lots of talk about sex and drugs, and throwbacks to the bar revealing a beautiful, quirky romantic love between Michael and Kristina before they divorced.
The new language of obscenities ( to which we’re supposed to now be immune), prevails throughout – lots of hurts and emotions fly as the lives of these friends and families come together resulting in a blame game as to whose fault it was that Julie became an addict and is now dying. The answer – spoiler alert!
It’s a thought provoking dramedy that will leave you feeling uncomfortable, with real impact, as it highlights not only a stage that moves round in circles but how our lives spin around tearing us apart and sometimes bring us back together.
The high level performances and complexity of this entwined ensemble is quite remarkable making it difficult to highlight any one specific actor as each is a standout.
Scott Elliott’s precision direction creates powerful storytelling on the brilliant turntable set design by Derek McLane. Jeff Croiter provides the lighting.
Photos: Monique Carboni
The Whirligig – The New Group – 212 279-4200, 416 West 42 Street, run time 2 hrs. 30 minutes (intermission) thru June 18.