Excuse me, but haven't we met before? Nobody ever asks that awkward yet necessary question in Hamish Linklater's The Whirligig, and that's just as well, because it would completely spoil the thing that makes this world premiere from the New Group so enchanting: the notion that we're more interconnected than we think. That's a theme explored in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (now receiving a limited Broadway revival), but it is central to the plot of The Whirligig, the story of eight lonely souls living in western Massachusetts.
Julie (Grace Van Patten) is only 23, but she's dying of multiple illnesses related to her heavy drug use. Her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), take her home from the hospital when her doctor (Noah Bean) tells them that there is nothing more he can do. The doctor's brother, Derrick (Jonny Orsini), takes a strange interest in Julie's prognosis, so much so that he steals her medical file and drives to her house. He ends up sitting in a tree branch outside her bedroom window and getting high with Trish (Zosia Mamet), Julie's best friend from high school. Neither of them has the courage to knock on the door.
Meanwhile, Michael finds himself on a bar stool next to Mr. Cormeny (Jon Devries with terrifically wobbly grandeur), a Bordeaux-guzzling social studies teacher delivering a dubious lecture on Russian history. Michael is a recovering alcoholic, something bartender Greg (Alex Hurt) knows too well since they were in AA together (addiction is the other major theme of the play). All of these characters are connected in more ways than can be explained here. Plus, it would ruin the thrill of surprise that is an ever-present delight in this tale of love and regret in the Berkshires, the Yankee answer to the Forest of Arden.
Theatergoers who have enjoyed Linklater's Shakespeare in the Park performances opposite partner Lily Rabe might feel a twinge of recognition in the concluding scenes, in which all of the characters come onstage to unravel their past relationships in one heaping helping of exposition, as often happens in Shakespeare's comedies. "That’s a lot to digest," comments Mr. Cormeny as the resolution sprints into absurdity. Cormeny is the clown to this reunited court of estranged friends and long-lost drug dealers. You might be surprised by how much you laugh considering the pitch-black premise. Some critics will undoubtedly indict Linklater on the charge of high contrivance, but when the performances are this enthralling, that is an easily forgivable crime.
Like a lot of actor-playwrights, Linklater creates great roles for talented actors, and this cast just happens to be full of them. With stubborn millennial diction and a dismissive shrug at the ready, Mamet convincingly embodies a woman still clinging to her adolescence, despite being a mom with two kids. Orsini plays her tree-climbing townie companion, a man who shrouds his past not so much in darkness, but dimness.
Wells adorns herself in the itchy guilt of a mother who knows she did a bad job, a mental hair-shirt that her daughter gleefully aggravates. Van Patten delivers this filial cruelty in a matter-of-fact style handed down from her father. Butz plays Michael as the fun drunk…until he's not. His sharp sense of humor regularly cuts too deep. Butz lands these verbal blows with merciless precision, his erratic physicality adding an element of danger to his scenes. We begin to suspect that Julie didn't just inherit her father's sharp tongue.
We are glad to get to know these characters so intimately, but the price is a script that often feels shaggy and overburdened by ancillary details. Linklater could stand to trim some of his dialogue, even if this cast is doing an excellent job of selling it all.
Director Scott Elliott's tidy production also helps to keep the play from getting stuck in a rut. Derek McLane's rotating stage churns along as the scenes bleed together, often jumping back and forth over time (Elliott does a particularly good job of maintaining clarity during time shifts). Costume designer Clint Ramos again proves to be highly attuned to what women wear when they want to be seen and when they don't (Trish's oversize blue hoodie is a telling choice). Jeff Croiter's moody nocturnal lighting keeps us tethered to the night of the present action, even when the script flashes back to illuminate something from the past.
Memory is the great traitor in this romp on downers. Its unreliability is also the thing that makes this play and its contrivance truthful. The Whirligig doesn't seem nearly so far-fetched if you stop to consider how little we notice of the people around us as we go about our self-absorbed lives: Do you actually remember the face of the last bartender you ordered a drink from, or were you too buried in your phone? Through life-and-death circumstances cushioned by unapologetic humor, Linklater asks us to really stop and look next time.