Review by Michael Bracken
“Which is worse? A black kid whose mom gets arrested, so he gets in with the wrong crowd, and is really high when he kills somebody…Or someone like us: upper middle class. White. And she, who is not a kid, has a few too many, like all of us do from time to time. And she gets behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated….with a kid in the back seat?”
It’s a good question, and it nicely sums up Whirl inside a Loop, at the Second Stage Theatre. It’s posed by both Phillip, a lawyer with a cavalier approach toward attorney client privilege, and by the play itself. Phillip represents an upper middle class white drunk-driving female, known only as The Volunteer. And The Volunteer volunteers by teaching inmates at a maximum security prison they have the power to rewrite their story. One of her pupils is a young, black, motherless, and sometime high murderer.
This short exchange is a welcome infusion of clarity in an otherwise – . Written by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott, with Scott also starring as The Volunteer, the play has moments that are moving, humorous, and gripping. But these qualities exist on separate planes. They’re never synthesized, and they’re supplemented by passages that annoy rather than enlighten or entertain.
The Volunteer’s trips to prison constitute her community service obligation in lieu of jail time. She presumably received her light sentence because of her money, fame, and skin color.
For all its juxtaposition of privileged and underprivileged lawbreakers, Whorl never, except for Phillip’s brief inquiry, squarely addresses the issue of who should and who shouldn’t be in prison. Its take on the inequality of the penal system, if it has one, gets lost in a cluttered landscape of distractions. Betrayal, artifice, and humor in the guise of perky one-liners all compete with social commentary. It’s a competition nobody wins.
The Volunteer’s mercurial mutation from concerned educator to duplicitous egoist is almost.instantaneous. . She’s quick to break the rule she and the inmates have established: “WHAT HAPPENS IN THIS ROOM IN PRISON STAYS IN THIS ROOM IN THE PRISON.
She tells friends about her first session, and they encourage her to use her experience for a play. She’s immediately on board. Her sessions with the men, all of whom are black and each of whom has written an autobiographical monologue for the class, shift focus. The prisoners become secondary. Gathering usable material for her play is the priority.
Scott, makes the evil Ursula, whom she played in The Little Mermaid on Broadway, look like Mary Poppins. At least Ursula’s malevolence is manifest. The Volunteer jumps around like a high school cheerleader, brimming with positive energy, as she manipulates the inmates into churning out material for the work she is stealing. With her charm on autopilot, she shows no remorse for driving drunk and doesn’t bat an eye at exploiting her students.
The gentlemen playing the prisoners (Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber, Jr.) form a tight ensemble as the inmates, playing off each other beautifully. But when playing other characters (prison personnel, visitors, The Volunteer’s son), including women and children, they go broad, abandoning the credibility they establish as prisoners.
It’s as if the inmates, rather than the actors, are doubling in minor roles. It’s hard to decipher why the directors, Michael Mayer and Dick Scanlan, have gone down this route. It adds nothing but confusion. The artifice it creates is underscored by costume designer ESosa’s prison uniforms, which the convicts wear regardless of whom they’re playing. Orange may be the new black, but it’s hard to take the minor characters seriously (presumably we’re not supposed to) when their brightly colored clothing belies their identity.
The title Whorl inside a Loop refers to an alleged characteristic of The Volunteer’s fingerprints, indicating she’s loyal, loving, manipulative, amoral, narcissistic, trustworthy, capable of acts of extreme kindness, and sociopathic with criminal tendencies. Like the play, she’s all over the map.
Whorl inside a Loop. Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd street). www.2ST.com 100 minutes (no intermission).