Zosia Mamet, the lethally annoying Shoshanna late of Girls, has braved some challenging stage roles, none more so than Trish in the world premiere of Hamish Linklater’s The Whirligig, which opened tonight in a New Group production at the Signature Theatre Center. Trish’s former best friend Julie (Grace Van Patten, Netflix’s Tramps) is dying a junkie’s death at home in the Berkshire Mountains, where her estranged parents can do little more than dance a jitterbug of reconciliation.
At one point during this tedious evening of odd exchanges, push me-pull you confrontations and long detours down paths better left unexplored, Julie’s desperate mother Kristina (Dolly Wells, HBO’s Dolly & Em) calls Trish the C-word, though not to her face. Kristina blames her for the addiction that led Julie to ignore her the serious disease of which she is apparently now beyond treatment.
Linklater has a growing body of work as a playwright while better known as one of our most gifted young actors on stage (Seminar), television (Fargo, The New Adventures of Old Christine) and film (Magic in the Moonlight, The Big Short). The Whirligig may have autobiographical elements; Linklater grew up in the Berkshires town of Great Barrington, and his mother’s name is Kristin, while Mr. Kormeny, the play’s loquacious barfly and former teacher, enacted with exquisite tenderness by Jon DeVries, is named for the playwright’s father.
Speaking of fathers, he is Michael, also a chattery drunk, played by Norbert Leo Butz with this actor’s signature combination of vulnerability and charm. Michael’s models are Shakespeare and Poe, which tells you everything you need to know. (Lavishly lubricated, Michael and Kristina recite “Annabell Lee,” which is de trop). But their helplessness rings true enough; as Mr. Kormeny observes of Michael, helpfully explaining the title, “That man is a whirligig of grief.”
As in an Agatha Christie murder mystery, everyone in Julie’s circle has reason to fear the damning finger of guilt, including the young man (Johnny Orsini) with whom the married, mother of two Trish is flirting as they peering into Julie’s bedroom from a tree in the yard (yes, they are literally out on a limb). The story skips confusingly about in time (even the stage directions signifying transitions are tough to follow), having more to do with building up to an unconvincing plot twist than any logic of story-telling.
There’s a lovely background score from Duncan Sheik, but the director, Scott Elliott, isn’t able to keep the threads from getting hopelessly tangled until the welcome sorting out of things as The Whirligig spins to its somber conclusion. Linklater reveals each of these characters with considerable warmth and compassion, which does nothing to alleviate their essential banality. Frozen in desperation, they’re incapable of surprise.