Anger, Seven Ways: Hamish Linklater’s “The Whirligig”

Alex Hurt and Norbert Leo Butz in The Whirligig. Photo: Monique Carboni.

In the second act of Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig — a word which, in this context, means the whirligig of grief — Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) says to his bartender friend Greg (Alex Hurt), “You’re too angry, way, way too angry.” He then elaborates on the charge at some tongue-lashing length.

Anyone watching this production by The New Group might think it’s fitting for Michael not only to accuse Greg but any of the other six characters of waxing excessively angry. Any other character could also call Michael to similar account since he’s truly a prime example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Then again, Michael’s full tank of fury has a pressing reason for being so red-hot: Julie (Grace Van Patten), his daughter,  is dying of Hepatitis C complications. Neither Michael nor his English wife Kristina (Dolly Wells) know how to deal with the situation, but who would? Neither do the others gathering around them, whether sitting in a tree on the hospital grounds or at the bar where Greg holds court.

Julie’s demise is slow; she’s brought home when nothing more can be done at the hospital. Chief among the concerned is Trish (Zosia Mamet), her BFF, whose concern rises to guilt. Also implicated in guilt are Patrick (Noah Bean), Julie’s attending physician, and his slacker brother, Derrick (Jonny Orsini).

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Explaining how and why Trish, Patrick and Derrick are caught in Julie’s terminal situation moves us into spoiler territory. Perhaps it’s enough to say that drug inclinations are behind it. And that drugs gone wrong explains the heated behavior between and among these characters.

But what needs to be declared about The Whirligig is that while raging voices can be, and often are, dramatic, they don’t necessarily constitute drama. And here, as Linklater’s skittering series of scenes unfolds, drama doesn’t accrue. What develops instead is a series of scenes with characters constantly raising their voices, screaming and bellowing on short notice, banging fists on tabletops, gnashing their teeth, falling to their knees in frustration and flying into physical combat. (UnkleDave’s Fight-House, with its four core members, and fight captain Valerie A. Peterson all earn their recognition.)

So by the time Act 2 arrives, Linklater’s characters don’t so much ratchet up drama as increasingly become pains in the neck. More and more, they’re company with whom one doesn’t care to remain. They’re also company whose intertwining, as Linklater arranges it, can seem forced — a few too many iffy coincidences in this play. Julie’s illness feels like a peg for a work aiming to depict men and women in extremis that falls shy of its mark.

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Linklater does have a knack for pithy and frequently amusing dialogue. In a scene where Michael is coaching Derrick for an audition, Derrick irately spouts, “Doth it?” Outlining the context in which he says this, alas, is another spoiler, but the outburst is genuinely funny.

As The Whirligig whirls, some, but hardly all, of Linklater’s playwriting problems are mitigated by Scott Elliott’s direction. Or is it too good? He wangles and cajoles explosive performances from all of the actors, including Jon DeVries Mr. Cormeny, as alcoholic teacher-barfly who can yell with the best of them. (N.B.: Cormeny is the surname of Linklater’s late father.)

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The best of the troupe haranguers and bangers and screamers is Butz, who has a broad range of choleric utterances. Perhaps the two-time Tony-winner’s musical theater background preps him particularly well for larger-than-life carrying on. But Hurt and Orsini also bark hyper-well, and Mamet has one attention-demanding breakdown. So on and on it goes, leading to a question: Had Elliott toned down all the ire to any considerable extent, would it have rendered The Whirligig more palatable? Or would it have gone against the basic grain of the play? It’s a hard one to call. (It does make you wonder, though, that with all the ranting forming a basis for vocal problems, no vocal coach is credited. Could Linklater’s mom, Kristin Linklater, the grand dame of vocal technicians stateside, be on call?)

Among the duties of the actors is moving furniture on a revolving set by Derek McLane with a rising and lowering tree branch. Clint Ramos is responsible for the costumes, Jeff Croiter for the sound and Duncan Sheik for the baleful original music.

Sound designer M.L. Dogg has one challenge met very handily. Trying to get Julie’s attention without entering the home, Trish throws pebbles at Julie’s bedroom window. That window happens to be in the stage’s fourth wall, so Mamet only mimes the tossing. It falls to Dogg to supply the sound of pebbles striking glass — and with proper timing. Maybe it’s a small thing, but it sure is well executed. And it’s not an angry sound at all.