One of the Best Plays in Los Angeles
by Faith Boutin
The Malibu Playhouse’s reimagined production of Noel Coward’s 1924 play The Vortex is a smashing success, brilliantly conceived, acted, staged, and directed. It is a passionate adaptation of the then scandalous play, with the bon mots flying as fast as the facades of the characters disintegrate. The production engulfs the audience in the vortex of each character’s life, alternately lifting theatergoers to the heights of delight and dropping them to the depths of despair.
Artistic director Gene Franklin Smith has reset the play in 1965 London, the start of the Hippie Revolution, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, but the themes are relevant for any time period. A promising young pianist who has been living a jaded life in Paris returns to London with his elegant fiancée whom he does not love to seek the approbation and love he will never receive from his aging, vainglorious, has-been actress-socialite mother, who has been carrying on with younger men. The flippant dialogue, which ensues between all the characters, masks the inner unraveling of each staged persona. As unresolved issues reach a head, mother and son are each both foiled and humiliated in their own doomed relationships, while their relationship to each other proves just as hopeless as the son desperately seeks the love of a mother incapable of anything other than self-love.
The homosexuality of the son is only hinted at in the play, as was the case with Coward, who never revealed in public his inclinations. With the rights of gays so much in the news today, one must realize that even though the play has been reset to 1965, when youth began to challenge the established order and dictums, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain at that time.
The Vortex was meant to serve as a vehicle for Coward’s own acting aspirations and its original production involved as much drama and turmoil as the play itself. Coward was forced to find his own financing for the play at the last minute and when he re-wrote the ending he subsequently lost his leading lady, just one week before the play was to open — if he could get it by the censor. Coward finessed his way through all this tumult and the play established his reputation. For all this effort, he originally earned the stupendous sum of 5 pounds per week, which was probably more than his understudy for the role did, John Gielgud.
The show revolves around Nicky Lancaster and his mother Florence, played with both radiance and intensity by Craig Robert Young and Shannon Holt. The privileged Nicky, whoThe Vortex is attempting to establish himself as a pianist of note while coping with his dubious sexuality and growing drug habit, has an unhealthy dependence on his mother, a once famous actress enraptured with herself and seeking only self-validation; she is having an affair with Tom (Daniel Jimenez), a younger man, while living under the same roof as her husband, who is seemingly oblivious, and reveling in the uncritical dotage of her friends.
Nicky, who has been leading a debauched life in Paris, brings home his intended Bunty (Skye LaFontaine), fruitlessly seeking his mother’s approval of her. Of course, a three-sided conflict, sparkling with vituperative Cowardisms, develops, and then the coup de grace is delivered to mother and son: Bunty and Tom, who were once attached, reattach and run off together. Mother and son “embrace” in the final act, but hardly find solace, not unexpected in a Cowardian world.
These two characters, Nicky and Florence Lancaster, and the play itself, are among Coward’s greatest creations. Although he is best remembered for Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward was certainly on point in The Vortex, subtly attacking with both wit and pathos the vapid upper class while exploring both on the surface and below the surface such issues as human sexuality, vanity, aging, infidelity, and Oedipal complexes.
The character of Nicky Lancaster is supposedly loosely based on Coward himself. Craig Robert Young plays that role to the hilt. He comments: “Coward’s words are just so delicious! You really need to understand that back then he wrote in code.”
However, Coward’s sardonic attacks on the privileged class and his sexual allusions could hardly be overlooked by the cognoscenti.
Young also offers his plaudits to his co-players and director: “I’m so fortunate to be working with this cast, whom I learn from everyday, and under the guidance of such a brilliant director as Gene Franklin Smith, whose vision and passion shine through with such finesse.”
Cameron Mitchell, Jr., Victoria Hoffman, and Will Carney are all able supporting players in this acerbic, thought-provoking drama.