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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The dying Julie is on the turntable part of the Pershing Square Signature Center's Alice Griffin Stage even as you take your seat for the New Group's world premiere production. When the play begins we see her divorced parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina(Dolly Wells), at her bedside. But they're not the only ones for whom that rotating set symbolizes how the return of this girl who has long been gone from their lives has thrown them all into a whirligig of painful quandaries about their role in her tragic return.
Despite some discretely integrated laughs, this is hardly a recipe for easy entertainment. What's more, it's very much a case of "attention must be paid." That's because the various characters' memories and self-searching takes the form of a non-linear trip through 17 back and forth jumping years — and in frequently overlapping scenes.
Anyone giving this somewhat self-indulgently long, complex drama the called for close attention, will be well rewarded. Linklater has created a rich tapestry of inter-connected lives. He writes terrific dialogue, full of wonderful literary references — some of which make Julie's high school social studies teacher Mr.Cormeny (Jon DeVries) much more than a stereotypical presence in a local bar tended and frequented by other characters.
Norbert Leo Butz is ideally cast as Michael, the father who's always ready with a funny routine even when his heart is breaking. Noah Bean and Jonny Orsini convincingly portray two very different but closely bonded brothers. Bean's Patrick is the doctor attending Julie, and his less stable brother Derrick was her dealer.
The cast overall is outstanding: Grace Van Patten as Julie and Dolly Wells as her mother Kristina, whose improperly treated depression turned the mother-daughter dynamic on its head for years. . . Zosia Mamet as Julie's former best friend who blames herself for introducing her to drugs. . . Alex Hurt as Gret, Trish's bartender and reformed alcoholic husband . . . and Jon DeVries as the already mentioned boozy Mr. Cormeny.
Linklater relies a bit too much on his characters' substance abuse and mental illness problems for the cause and effect of the central tragedy. Several characters were or are alcoholics. Recreational drug use is seen turning heavy duty. Kristina's depression, not only made her over-dependent on her young daughter but also results in her leaving the marriage once properly treated. But, sad to say, these are all too common social problems throughout today's America, not just in the play's Berkshire County locale.
Like Mr. Linklater I know this part of Massachussetts very well (I spent more than 25 years there as a part-time resident and still cover the area's lively summer season, so I was especially struck by the authenticity of his backgrund since I know all the places mentioned actually exist). While this is a booming 4-season resort area, some places like the city of Pittsfield have suffered enormously from lost industries and the ripple effect of drug and alcohol related problems.
The busy and always on the mark Derek McLane has created a set that effectively takes us through the multiple locales: to Julie's hospital bed at Berkshire Medical Center, the inside and outside of Michael's house in Great Barrington and a bar on that town's Railroad Street. A particularly striking scene that overlaps past and present finds Trish and Derrick sitting downstage on a large branch of a tree, while upstage we see Julie in bed and Kristina at the window reading to her.
The atmospheric setting is further enhanced by Duncan Sheik's original music and M. L. Dogg's sound design. Perhaps one of the songs used to punctuate The Whirligig, Billy Joel's "We didn't Start the Fire", best sums up the cri de coeur of Mr. Linklater's anguished Bershirites:
We idn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn't light it
But we tried to fight it
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The Whirligig by Hamish Linklater
Directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Noah Bean (Patrick), Norbert Leo Butz (Michael), Jon DeVries (Mr. Cormeny), Alex Hurt (Greg), Zosia Mamet (Trish), Jonny Orsini (Derrick), Grace Van Patten (Julie) and Dolly Wells (Kristina).
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by M.L. Dogg
Original Music by Duncan Sheik
Special Effects Design by Jeremy Chernick
Fight Direction by UnkleDave's Fight-House
. Production Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including 1 intermission
The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center's Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
From 5/04/17; opening 5/21/17; closing 6/11/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/18 press preview
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