If you fished Whorl Inside a Loop out of a slush pile and read only its précis, you’d probably cringe: A Broadway actress, described as the whitest person at her own Whitey McWhite party, teaches a class called Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative to a group of black men incarcerated for homicide at a maximum-security prison. You’d easily guess what’s next: Whitey McWhite will impart important lessons about taking responsibility through art, shed a tear for her own emotional imprisonment, and make the audience feel good about itself by proxy. But this is totally not how the drama develops in Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott’s new play, based to some extent on their experiences leading a similar group at Woodburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Or, rather, these things happen, but they are part of a story so much larger and more complicated that its liberal-orgasm outline can’t come close to doing it justice. And justice is the point.
Scott, that alabaster goddess, of course plays Whitey McWhite. (She’s not actually given a name; in the script she’s just called, with some irony, as it turns out, the volunteer.) As she has proved repeatedly in her previous semiautobiographical works, Scott is not afraid of portraying herself in a highly unflattering light. In Everyday Rapture, she was a ditz looking for her place in the world but missing all the clues. In Whorl, she is something quite a bit worse: a narcissist so wrapped up in her own story that even her attempts to satirize her narcissism come off as narcissistic. At first this is just a matter of lame jokes that betray her fear of visiting the prison. She can’t seem to stop talking about her bra as she trips the metal detector; she complains about the fingerprinting policy because she “just had a mani-pedi.” But the hiccuppy self-mocking chuckle that accompanies such comments eventually comes to signal full-out bad faith. In scenes set on the outside, among her family and friends, she uncomplainingly partakes in the casual racism that even do-gooders allow themselves when given the excuse of criminality. And by the time she starts talking about theatricalizing the prisoners’ narratives for her own show, gaily explaining that it’s not stealing, it’s “assimilating,” you want to call the cops.
You don’t want to send her away, though; Scott is such a remarkable actress, so human in her weirdness, that you hope she will mend her bad ways instead. Meanwhile, if the prisoners seem complementarily overgood, so improved by their incarceration that they should be released immediately and sent to work in kindergartens, there is a structural reason for it that goes well beyond Sob Sister pandering. It’s part of Scanlan and Scott’s intention to use the prisoners’ stories (some drawn from, and credited to, the men they worked with at Woodburn) to raise the question of rehabilitation; Hillary Clinton, whom Scott actually met at a hair salon and discussed the subject with, turns up (in a hair salon) to ask questions about prison reform. But, in a Pirandellian slow turn you don’t see happening until it’s nearly finished, the authors neatly reverse angle and destroy the play’s apparent frame, revealing finally that the volunteer’s story, whether true or false, selfless or self-involved, isn’t the central one here.
If that sounds mysterious, well, Whorl Inside a Loop has a searching, puzzling quality that is very rare in contemporary plays, whose themes are typically sharpened to fine pencil-points. This one spreads out as it goes, asking larger and larger questions. The title itself, a reference to a highly unusual fingerprint pattern the volunteer insists she’s blessed with, expands its meaning quite organically to suggest the conundrum of essentialism and social construction. Is evil innate? Also: Is it unary? Are people only as good as the worst thing they’ve ever done? But what’s really remarkable is that potentially airy ideas like these are so concretized in the writing that you never feel improved, only entertained. Yet the entertainment, despite plot twists and structural shenanigans I can’t spoil here, never feels cheap. Even a slightly obvious tensioning device — one character puts off reading a letter from the parole board — turns out to be something less obvious, and less conclusory, because the play is too smart to leave the clichés of its genre unturned.
This is also true of the beautiful staging by Michael Mayer, working in collaboration with Scanlan. I don’t mean beautiful as in pretty; the set by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis is little more than a wooden platform, with all the rails and rigging left visible. (Donald Holder’s prison lighting and ESosa’s wittily accoutered orange coveralls are similarly low-key.) It’s more a matter of how Scott and the six male actors are directed to theatricalize the narrative, engaging the story at several levels simultaneously, making their own sound effects, and sliding effortlessly among multiple characters of various races and genders. Some very powerful moments arise from a mix of writing and direction that can’t be parsed, as when Scott gives one prisoner, who at first mumbles his monologue, the tin-eared suggestion that he imagine he is on a date. (Because he was incarcerated at 16, he has never been on one.) Her next idea, that he pretend he’s shouting something urgent to someone across a subway platform, works too well.
The six male actors — Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber Jr. — are excellent without exception, and if some stand out, it may only be because of the raw material provided by their real-life counterparts. (Myers is particularly heartbreaking as the mumbler.) But it would be a mistake to separate the men from the woman, both as characters and as performers. Like her students, the volunteer is too complicated to judge. As for Scott, banal as it sounds, she clearly learned something from teaching in prison. She has the guts to write against herself as a way of getting past herself, and then the guts to question her motives. When one of the men, troubled by the idea of turning his crime into theater, says that “writing about it is taking responsibility for it, but reenacting it feels like glorifying it,” you may at first nod in agreement. But Whorl Inside a Loop, after investigating that paradox with all the honesty, humor, and stage savvy it can muster, convincingly demonstrates that theater can itself be a form of rehabilitation.
Whorl Inside a Loop is at Second Stage through September 27.