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Theater review by Adam Feldman
The onstage turntable in The Whirligig is already rotating, not unlike the planet Earth, when the audience arrives. A terminally ill young woman lies motionless in bed as the floor takes her on a slow, steady spin: This is Julie (a plangent Grace Van Patten), who has returned to her hometown in the Berkshires to die from cancer that went untreated during her years as a junkie. When her estranged parents visit her at the hospital, her mother, Katrina (Dolly Wells), is frozen numb with guilt; her father, Michael (Norbert Leo Butz), tries to make jokes.
This uncomfortable mixture of tragedy and comedy is central to Hamish Linklater’s affecting and intelligent new play, which references the bittersweet late works of Shakespeare and also borrows some of their tone. The Whirligig begins toward the end of its story, but spends much of its time in flashback, connecting dots and filling in blanks. Who is responsible for what happened to Julie? Her tippling father? Her unstable mother? Her feckless best friend, Trish (the precise Zosia Mamet)? Her doctor (Noah Bean)? His layabout ex-con brother (a likable Jonny Orsini)?
The answer, perhaps, is all and none of the above. In this small-town world, everyone’s stories are tangled up in one another’s. Scott Elliott’s production for the New Group keeps a steady sense of balance amid the play’s swirling parts, creating strong bonds of unspoken history within his cast of eight (which also includes Alex Hurt as a good-natured bartender and Jon DeVries as a boozy gasbag). Even in its exuberant penultimate scene, crowded with characters and revelations, Linklater doesn’t overexplain. He gives his stricken creations room to understand themselves, if not redeem themselves, before the turntable moves them gently into the dark.