Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig is a play filled with suffering characters. Julie (Grace Van Patten) is dying of cancer, but she’s also a junkie. Her childhood friend, Trish (Zosia Mamet), is a mother of two, but is plagued by guilt because she is the one who got Julie hooked on drugs. Trish introduced Julie to her dealer, Derrick (Jonny Orsini), newly out of prison on parole. Julie’s parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells) are an alcoholic and a manic-depressive, respectively. And on and on the whirligig spins.
Literally. The play is staged on Derek McLane’s turntable, which, in Scott Elliot’s unimaginative direction, delivers each scene downstage center and carries it away when another comes along. The result is anguished character after anguished character heaving and stammering and shouting in the same place for 150 minutes, minus intermission. None of the characters have anything to do but talk about all the things that are upsetting them. They are heavy issues, sure, but where is the action? We don’t see anything happen, aside from a couple of scenes in which the play flashes back to the night Julie and Derrick met. The rest, as they say, is lamentation.
It’s easy to see why the play appealed to these actors. It is overstuffed with “acting moments:” morsels of spit-spraying, arm-flaying acting that, if we cared about the characters, would be very effective. But The Whirligig is structured to prevent our investment. To be interested in a character’s journey, there has to be contrast; this is just a lot of the same. Linklater begins the play with Julie confined to her hospital bed and establishes that she is dying of cancer. The entire “junkie” plot is unconnected to her cancer, it is just another thing about her. The characters talk endlessly about Julie’s drug use, but the play never shows what she was like on drugs or how her using affected her friends and family beyond vague tiptoeing around the subject. The idea that bad people get cancer, too is worth exploring and is not something that I’ve seen on stage before, but unfortunately, The Whirligig takes the position that Julie’s cancer redeems her past actions (whatever they may be). It often feels like there are two plays happening at once: the primary one about a woman dying of cancer and how her friends and family cope with that, and another, smaller play, about a junkie who has alienated said friends and family. The two plays are oil and water.
Zosia Mamet’s face adorns the poster and it is appropriate as her work here outshines the rest. Mamet imbues Trish with an authenticity that is lacking from the text. Fresh from Girls, Mamet carries her youthful, speed-talking association with Shoshanna into the more adult, jaded character she plays here. Where her fellow actors, especially a blustery Butz, are pushing and shoving and kicking their performances around the stage, Mamet’s touch is light and truthful and a welcome relief whenever she takes the reins.
Hamish Linklater is known for being a gifted actor and he has crafted the kind of play that an actor would read and think, “I could play the hell out of that scene.” For an audience, though, a bunch of those scenes lined up next to each other is grating and unfulfilling.