A girl is stretched out in a hospital bed that moves steadily on a revolving stage as the audience take their seats at Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig, an intricately structured and often lyrical drama that seems to have been allowed to naturally grow and expand wherever it wants to. The girl in the bed is Julie (Grace Van Patten), and she is terminally ill at the age of 23 following a period of drug dependence. Her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), are holding vigil over her in the first scene.
Linklater is not interested in expository hand-holding or in making anything too clear for us, but from the moment Michael and Kristina start speaking we can tell they are difficult people. Michael is an actor and an alcoholic, an extrovert who holds life at bay through quotes and jokes and outsize behavior. Kristina is British, sharp-featured and introverted, with a quiet, seething core of unrest. Julie is so sick she can barely speak, but we can sense that she is a diffident, humorous person and that she feels profoundly disconnected from her parents.
Linklater moves fluidly back and forth in time, patiently setting up eight characters and their connections to one another. We meet Julie’s doctor Patrick (Noah Bean), who decides to send Julie home to die, and Patrick’s brother Derrick (Jonny Orsini), who steals Julie’s hospital file and camps out in a tree outside her house. Julie’s friend Trish (Zosia Mamet) stops by and climbs the tree to talk with Derrick; the branch they perch on is raised rather high above the stage as other people interact, then lowered whenever their conversation resumes.
There is a flashback to an earlier time between Michael and Kristina where we can feel their chemistry and see that they came together precisely because they are so different. Linklater has clearly spent a lot of time with these characters and knows everything about them. He is interested above all in exchanges of dialogue in which the participants make unexpected detours that allow them to be surprisingly frank and objective about themselves.
Linklater is an actor (CBS’s The Crazy Ones, The Big Short) and the son of the noted voice teacher Kristin Linklater, whose key text is the book Freeing the Natural Voice. So there is a certain irony to the fact that The Whirligig sometimes founders on voice work. Witness a passage in which Mamet’s Trish and Van Patten’s Julie interact lazily on a couch — it could be said that the scene’s surface nonchalance is naturalistic, true to the way these girls would look and sound when relaxing, but Linklater’s dialogue is so layered and twisty that certain words and phrases become lost somewhere upstage. Similarly, there are short episodes that meander in a kind of physical and vocal funk. Bodies go slack, and words drift away from rather than toward us.
But in the two most important scenes in The Whirligig, director Scott Elliott takes a risk that pays off. He stages both with two actors simply facing each other and barely moving for several minutes, and both are so sensitively written that the material alone carries them where they need to go. The first is an exchange wherein Trish is stoned and Kristina is looking for some advice. What develops is an unlikely symbiosis, the pair revealing the sorts of things people only let themselves say when they let their guard down.
Linklater has also written an outstanding love scene that commences with Derrick’s efforts to sell drugs to Julie. The great charm here comes from Derrick’s obvious loneliness, the tension from Julie’s toying around with being the aggressor until she decides to embrace the role. Their tit-for-tat seduction seems destined to become a favorite for actors in scene-study classes. It contains clear objectives for both characters as well as strong forward motion, but it’s also filled with pleasurable byways where Derrick and Julie try to impress each other through jokes and impersonations.
Some things do not work here. The title doesn’t really suit the barroom melancholy of the tone at large, and it is particularly unfortunate when a drunken-teacher character, a Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries), is made to mention the name of the play. (The role references Linklater’s father, James Lincoln Cormeny, who passed away in 2014.) There are many digressions about baseball and Russia and writers that might have been trimmed, though it’s a welcome thing to hear Cormeny reference the philosopher Santayana, who has fallen out of fashion but who used to be quoted a good deal. There is a plot revelation toward the conclusion that truly feels like it comes out of nowhere, in response to which Cormeny observes, “That’s a lot to digest” — so at least the flaws are self-aware flaws.
In the end, The Whirligig is such a pleasing play because it has the nerve to be only itself. It scorns easy laughs and easy tears, and it even takes an unfashionable position on the concept of regret. (Unlike Édith Piaf, this play is all for it.) The saddest moment arrives at the end of the romantic segment between Derrick and Julie, when Julie slowly moves back into the present, puts on her hospital gown, and gets back on her deathbed. In that long, slow movement — a procession that travels from Julie’s height as a human being to the setting of her premature decline — The Whirligig achieves a tragic theatrical force, all on its own messy, sprawling terms.
By Hamish Linklater
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 18