WHAT “The Whirligig”
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $75-$120; 212-279-4200, thenewgroup.org
BOTTOM LINE Puzzle-like story lacks an emotional payoff.
“That’s a lot to digest,” a character says in “The Whirligig.” After the many plot revelations and chronology-scrambling jumps of Hamish Linklater’s new play, the audience may be inclined to agree.
Best known as an actor — in popular Shakespeare in the Park productions such as “Much Ado About Nothing” and currently in the third season of “Fargo” — Linklater certainly offers storytelling ambition in his third outing as a playwright. At the start, the show appears to be about Michael (Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), a couple preparing themselves for the imminent death of their 23-year-old daughter, Julie (Grace van Patten). Julie is wasting away, and we quickly learn she was a drug user.
That setup alone could carry an entire show, but there’s more — Linklater is interested in how drugs and alcohol wreck families and communities, pitting parents and children, friends and lovers against each other.
Gradually, flashbacks reveal how Julie became a junkie, what it took for her dad to switch to soft drinks, and the key roles played by Julie’s almost-boyfriend, Derrick (Jonny Orsini), and her high school pal Trish (Zosia Mamet, late of “Girls”). Everybody in this small Berkshires town appears connected to everybody else, and Julie’s fate brings them all together in a “whirligig of grief.”
This remark, by the way, comes courtesy of the teacher and barfly (Jon DeVries) who quips about having a lot to digest. He gets drunker and drunker as the show goes on, until you realize the character doesn’t actually need to be there and is among the reasons everything drags so much — the scenes also tend to go on for a beat, or five, too long.
The cast mostly rises to the challenge, especially Butz and Alex Hurt, in a sadly underwritten part as a kind bartender, and is comfortable with the tonal shifts — the show is somber but far from unfunny. Scott Elliott stages this New Group production smoothly, considering the constant, challenging changes in setting and timeline. We always know where and when a given scene takes place, which helps keep track of the puzzle pieces as they slowly fall into place. Too bad the big picture that emerges lacks the needed emotional payoff.