Thematically, Hamish Linklater's THE WHIRLIGIG could remind me of Clifford Odet’s AWAKE AND SING , just susbstitute an addicting drug of choice for poverty, to look at the interconnected effects of tragedy on family and community. In Linklater’s new play presented by The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Stage, the family are the divorced parents - unloving mother, “dry “alcoholic father - of 23 year-old Julia who returns “home” to face an early death brought on by the ravages of HepC and incurable leukemia. The community surrounding them is composed of Julia’s attending physician, the doc’s younger ex-con brother, Julie’s estranged, druggie best friend and that friend’s husband, a recovering alcoholic bartender, plus her drunk, old high school English teacher.
Linklater sets his story in the Berkshires, with which he is personally familiar, his acting-teacher mother being a founder of Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox. For those familiar with the “Berks” there are specific references to the Pittsfield Hospital, Monument High School, 20 Railroad Street, Great Barrington’s go-to bar and burger joint for decades. Linklater even makes a corny joke about Salisbury CT, linking it to Salisbury steak. NOT. But no matter, place is largely irrelevant. What’s vital is how the characters are linked by the past. Unfortunately, the plot event that triggers the connections is based on the ludicrous contrivance that a physician would share confidential information about a patient with an unauthorized person, particularly an ex-con that has done prison time for drugs. Another plot element that lacks credulity is the recovering-alcoholic bartender abetting Julia’s father, his very own AA sponsee, returning to drink at his bar after a 10-year abstinence.
Linklater’s heart is in the right place, but the plotting emerges without dramatic focus partly because the story shifts, sometimes clumsily, from the present back and forth to events 10-15 years before that led to Julia’s addiction. Linklater introduces some mystery in who really got Julia started in drugs but it seems contrived with all the other narrative twists.
The acting of the talented cast is uneven. Dolly Wells as Julia’s mother in the opening hospital room scene is almost inaudible. Zoe Mamet as Julia's best friend makes the most out of her lines when she screams them out. Clint Ramos’s costumes are authentically ordinary. Duncan Sheik’s interstitial original music echoes the contemplative tones in Linklater’s script. Derek McLane’s scenic design includes lots of artificial tree branches that are suspended, to distracting effect, horizontally over the stage. The scenes take place on a stage-sized, open turntable. Slowly rotating as that is it provides more movement than the script, which seems weighed-down by exposition. (Why are there multiple scenes where one character is talking to another unseen, off stage?) The usually reliable robust direction of Scott Elliott is rather lifeless. At the conclusion of the play the characters stand inertly, like stick figures, without much dramatic effect. One can’t experience catharsis if there isn’t any action.
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