The New Group’s world premiere production of Hamish Linklater’s play The Whirligig literalizes its titular metaphor. Instead of blackouts and set changes, a rotating stage brings each of the short scenes successively downstage. It’s a clever and effective vehicle for a story that begins with a dying young woman in a hospital bed, evolves through flashbacks showing what led to that sad situation, and closes the circle with a return to the present day and a strange, strained reunion.
Oddly in a tale about a promising young life destroyed by drug addiction, we don’t see Julie’s (an affecting Grace Van Patten) dependency and decline. Rather, Linklater tells her story obliquely, through her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s tightly coiled anger, and the tamer drug habits of her high school friend Trish (a piercing Zosia Mamet) a decade or so later in the play’s “present day.”
Many scenes strike hot, though a couple of important ones fizzle. I found the intergenerational heart-to-heart between Julie’s mother Kristina (Dolly Wells) and Trish really hard to believe, and the climactic gathering in the yard outside Julie’s window feels concocted rather than organic. But for the most part, the clever unspooling of the plot is a joy to follow, while the fine cast burnishes individual moments of character revelation into a constellation of inky pathos and acidic humor.
Norbert Leo Butz brings his usual dangerous style to the role of Julie’s father, Michael, a high school acting teacher and drunk. The morbid decline of his and Kristina’s once-poetic love affair mirrors what we learn of their daughter’s descent into addiction. Their contrasting reactions to their shared grief form opposing ends of the play’s emotional whirligig. The sound of Kristina’s voice reading to her sick and perhaps unconscious daughter pierce the heart.
The troubled relationship between Julie’s doctor (Noah Bean) and his wastrel younger brother (Jonny Orsini) is touching if not fully explored. Dramatically satisfying, sometimes dizzying plot revelations revolve into view as the scenes spin round. The period pop-culture references are fun, if a little overdone. But director Scott Elliott pours one juicy scene into the next gracefully, occasionally with pleasing, decorative overlap, and makes smart use of a tree branch that jabs into the merry-go-round like an accusatory finger.
Before the action begins, Julie lies alone in her hospital bed, rotating slowly as if drifting through a drugged-out coma – or a dream. The Whirligig doesn’t sustain its dreamy magic consistently, but it offers much to appreciate. It has been extended through June 18 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. For tickets and information visit The New Group online or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.