Writer-actor Hamish Linklater’s new play “The Whirligig,” expressionistic in form and melancholy in tone, examines the whirling emotions of the friends and family who are keeping the deathwatch on a young woman wasted by drugs. Despite the downbeat subject, it’s a touching play and exceptionally stageworthy in this polished production staged for The New Group, directed by the company’s artistic director Scott Elliott and featuring a cast that includes Zosia Mamet and Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.
Linklater is one busy guy. As a stage actor, he’s been on Broadway (in “Seminar”) and Off Broadway (at Playwrights Horizons, among other venues), and is an especially welcome face on the summer stage of the Delacorte. On TV, he’s been in shows including “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and “Legion.” As a scribe, the plays he writes (“The Vandal”) travel well on the regional circuit.
In his latest, the image of the whirligig — literally realized on designer Derek McLane’s handsome set by a relentlessly rotating turntable — gives a sense of the emotional ups and downs of the play. Julie (played by a wan-looking Grace Van Patten) is already on her deathbed when the audience enters the theater. But in keeping with Linklater’s non-linear storytelling, a healthier-looking Julie will reappear to show us how a dose (or is that supposed to be an overdose?) of some toxic drug ravaged her body.
The emotional swings of the play are best realized by Butz, who’s giving a brilliant chameleon performance as Julie’s heartbroken father, Michael. In the hospital, Michael is the picture of misery, a character you want to take to your heart. “You cry,” Julie admonishes him from her deathbed. “It’s gross.” But wait a minute and Butz will get a huge belly laugh when Michael forgets to bring a bedside book to read to Julie — and offers to tell “humorous anecdotes” instead.
Julie’s estranged mother, Kristina (played with a touch of frost by Dolly Wells), is far more composed at her daughter’s bedside. But Linklater exercises his mordant strain of humor by allowing Julie to pull a very cruel “joke” on her emotionally distant mother.
Although the parent-child dynamic is at the heart of the tale, this sprawling, plot-free play has room for all sorts of characters to buzz around Julie’s deathbed. Director Elliott is a certifiable casting maven, so each of these colorful supporting roles is played to eccentric perfection. Mamet (Shoshanna on HBO series “Girls”) could charm snakes on a plane as Julie’s best friend, Trish. Her bartender husband Greg, played with pure heart by Alex Hurt (“Love, Love, Love”), is a magnet for garrulous old rummies like the barfly played by that grand old trouper Jon DeVries. And Noah Bean makes a handsome, if dubious doctor.
The production values are unusually strong — no surprise for a New Group production, but still. McLane’s set (gorgeously lighted in limpid blues and greens by Jeff Croiter) is dominated by a magnificent tree that becomes a character in the play when Julie’s friends Trish and Derrick (an endearing Jonny Orsini) climb up to peer into her bedroom window. And costumer Clint Ramos has come through with the kind of authentically beat-up costumes that help to validate the characters, especially the ones who wear their t-shirts like foreign soldiers wear their uniforms — with pride.