As we file into the theater to see Hamish Linklater’s play “The Whirligig,” we observe Grace Van Pattten, who, we subsequently learn, is Julie, confined to a hospital bed slowly revolving on the stage. Unlike pre-start situations in which an actor sits aimlessly on a chair, at least in this case the sight pricks our interest as the young woman in question would appear to be seriously ill. In fact, as we later hear, she is dying.
The circular movement is in sync with the circular movement of the play itself, as suggested by the title, with characters in revolving situations, but all in one way or another coming to focus on the dying Julie. There are time changes and flashbacks to follow the trajectories of Linklater’s assorted characters, with whom you may or may not relate appreciatively. But you will be unlikely to question the veracity or effectiveness of the acting.
In addition to his attempt to focus on character delineation, the playwright is in a sense presenting an anti-drug theme. We learn that the taking of drugs by Julie has pointed toward catastrophe, and that the responsibility for leading her into her drug habits is heinous. Eventually the personal source of the trouble is unmasked.
There is a lot on the plate for Linklater, known for his acting, as we note in the unspooling of this drama presented by the New Group under the direction of Scott Elliott. Norbert Leo Butz is anguished as Julie’s father, Michael, who can rant and rave and who certainly has reason for upset at the fate of his daughter. His ex-wife and Julie’s mother, Kristina, played by Dolly Wells, effectively expresses her own confrontation with grief.
We meet Julie’s growing-up friend Trish, played by Sosia Mamet, and we see them in their early days of drug use and plotting to find a boyfriend for Julie, who is anxious to lose her virginity. There are Julie’s doctor, Patrick (Noah Bean), and his troubled younger brother, Derrick (Jonny Orsini), and others in the mosaic, and Linklater deftly exposes his characters in the different time frames.
Eventually all roads lead back to Julie and her tragic, decreasing moments as a woman too young to die and the responses of those whose lives she has touched and who have touched hers. Death is inevitably sad, but to the extent that one will respond emotionally will be governed by how deeply one feels for the characters, with Julie the most sympathetic one according to what we have seen of her in Linklater’s whirligig of a drama with its broad attempt at interplay among his character assortment. What does firmly emerge is the built-in warning of how devastating the use of drugs can become in an age when, according to news reports and surveys, they are newly afflicting so many people nation-wide. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200.