With his debut play, Hamish Linklater has written a generous work, one that offers substantial roles to all eight of its actors. Like its title, the stage of The Whirligig spins round and round, unfolding a series of scenes in the lives of those who are in one way or another connected to Julie (Grace Van Patten), a drug addict who has returned home to die at age twenty-three. Her alcoholic father (Norbert Leo Butz), her depressive mother (Dolly Wells), her best friend (Zosia Mamet) and ex-boyfriend (Jonny Orsini), among others, visit her deathbed and reflect on their role in this suburban tragedy.
Ultimately, The Whirligig comes down to the terrific performances: there’s Mr. Butz, buzzing with the manic energy of a failed actor ever performing for his friends and family; there’s Ms. Wells, his stoic counterpart, whose struggle reveals itself in her stubborn insistence on coldness and restraint; and there’s Ms. Mamet, with her rat-a-tat, Valley Girl delivery that uses glib confidence to mask the fear of adulthood.
But “generous” describes Mr. Linklater’s relationship to his characters as well as to his actors. Each are, in fact, partially responsible for Julie’s illness, and yet in a brisk two and a half hours we can see how, with only a little carelessness, their lives have followed this trajectory. There is a humanity here that is missing from more conceptual contemporary works, and while the Signature has been marked recently by superb challenges to theatrical form and purpose, it feels comfortable and comforting to settle in to one that is simply and expertly written in the tradition of the well-made play.