The actor-playwright Hamish Linklater, born in Great Barrington, an upscale rural community of the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, uses the bucolic area as the setting for The Whirligig, his new play. It’s a region with plenty of past literary associations. Edith Wharton has a crucial scene in Ethan Frome take place in Lenox, where she lived; Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Tanglewood Tales while dwelling in the same town; and Herman Melville turned out Moby-Dick at his home in Pittsfield, the county seat. Much more recently, Lucy Thurber set her Hilltown Plays in the nearby area.
There is no doubt that Linklater himself knows the Berkshires, since his mother, the noted acting teacher Kristin Linklater, was a founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. There are name-checks of local interest that, as a native myself, I can confirm: Simon’s Rock, a private school; Guido’s, a popular specialty grocery store; and the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. Even “the Barrington Classic Stage Company” is an overt nod to the Barrington Stage Company, the terrific regional theater in Pittsfield that sent On the Town to New York in 2014.
The tickle of familiarity, however, is of no great help to the play itself. It’s an impressionistic meditation about a group of people affected by the imminent death of a young woman, a victim of the nation’s opioid epidemic, which has hit the Berkshires as badly as rural areas of Appalachia and brought violent crime with it (although there is none in The Whirligig).
The central character is Julie (Grace Van Patten), a young woman hospitalized with a fatal infection from a long addiction to drugs. Although long estranged, her parents, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (Dolly Wells), are by her hospital bed, where her doctor, Patrick (Noah Bean), looks in periodically, until he decides she may as well be sent home.
The stress causes Michael, a recovered alcoholic, to drink again; he stops in a bar where a former student, Greg (Alex Hurt) is bartending; Greg has also been his AA counselor. It’s also where a fellow teacher, Mr. Cormeny (Jon DeVries) has a regular barstool from which he bloviates on Russian politics and writers. It’s the irascible inebriate Cormeny who comments to Greg that Michael “is in a whirligig of pain” (and who bears the same surname as Linklater’s real father, in a sort of reverse homage).
Also in town are Trish (Zosia Mamet), Greg’s wife and a former bulimic who turned Julie on to drugs in high school. She lingers outside the house, wanting to go in but balking because she knows that Kristina bears tremendous ill will toward her for introducing Julie to drugs. Finally, there is Derrick (Jonny Orsini), who once sold drugs to Julie and became her boyfriend, and is, in fact, Patrick’s brother.
The plot jumps back and forth in time, sometimes confusingly, and the story feels loose under Scott Elliott’s direction. Some of the connections are too baldly contrived. Although Linklater might be trying for them to be as tight as in an Ibsen play, it’s a strain on coincidence that the drug supplier whom Derrick was representing when he met Julie to sell her drugs years earlier is also among the present-day characters, or that, in a bit of quirkiness that goes on too long, Trish and Derrick find themselves up a tree together, moping and looking in Julie’s window.
Elliott pulls good performances from all the actors, and he gives the play a consistent but lugubrious tone, as all the characters struggle with lives that have been warped or stunted, and the damage they have done to one another. Jeff Croiter’s darkening of the space traps the characters in shadows haunted by failure. But in spite of Linklater’s skill at injecting humor periodically, the play is a downer.
At the end, Linklater awkwardly attempts to bring most of them together with a bittersweet Shakespearean touch, as if it were Twelfth Night or Cymbeline, but it doesn’t work. The result is unwieldy and overlong. Still, Linklater’s ambition is enormous, and the actors make the most of his dialogue, even if the whole may feel like a whirligig of improbability.
The New Group production of The Whirligig plays through June 18 at the Signature Center in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (480 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit thenewgroup.org.