In The Whirligig, now twirling through June 18 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Jon DeVries is a veritable Polonius-on-the-bar-stool: a boozy old schoolteacher who, despite (or maybe because of) his inebriated condition, sizes up Norbert Leo Butz’s situation with impeccable preciseness. “That poor gentleman,” he says gravely, “is in a whirligig of grief.” Amen to that! Butz, a two-time Tony winner, spends most of this drama swinging back and forth from one sorrow to another—both in real time and in flashbacks to 15 years earlier.
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“I thought, ‘Oh, what a pretty word! I’ll pull it out of that line and throw it on the front of the play,” admits the man who wrote that line (and play), Hamish Linklater, perhaps still best known for his multiple outings in Shakespeare in the Park (Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing) and small screen turns on HBO’s The Newsroom and The New Adventures of Old Christine.
The Whirligig started spinning four years ago when he was on location in Richmond, Virginia, shooting a movie. “I pulled out these old scenes I’d written and put away in a drawer, and a play came out of that. It came from loss, like all my plays. An uncle I was close to died, younger than he should have, and then, two months after that, my dad died, also in his 60s.
“One of the big themes of the play is survivor guilt or feelings of culpability with people’s passing. I know that certainly went around with those losses. You think, ‘Oh, gosh, I could have answered that email. That would have been nice.’ With my dad, I would think, ‘Oh, there would be this opportunity or that opportunity, and that opportunity missed.’ He died at 30th and Ninth, and, when I have a long break between shows, I’ll walk down there and stand in front of his building.”
Director Scott Elliott seems to have interpreted The Whirligig literally as a clue on how to present the play, and, in creative collaboration with Derek McLane’s sets and Jeff Croiter’s lighting, he allows the story to unwind in sweeps and swirls, with scenes flowing seamlessly from hospital room to bar to tree limb and back again.
It helps to have a Grade-A cast moving through this labyrinth (among them: Jonny Orsini, Alex Hurt, Zosia Mamet, Dolly Wells, Noah Bean, and Grace Van Patten).
“What’s been such heaven is that we got the cast we got,” Linklater says. “When the words are in their mouths, they make it sound like hot, bubbly water. Someone asked Norbert if he was improvising, making things up, but it was exactly the way it was written. It’s such a privilege to have someone make your language sound like they’re making it up, because that’s what it should be.”
Butz, he beams, was his idea. “Nobody thought we could get him, so I wrote him a note and sent him the play. It was one of those wonderful things where he called the next day and said, ‘I know why you want me to do this, and I’m going to do it.’”
Linklater’s next opus, Paris, Actors, will be workshopped at New York Stage & Film over the summer. And he has other plots percolating. Is there any chance that he’ll give up acting just to write plays? “None. I can’t afford it.” So stay tuned to Season 3 of FX’s Fargo.
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