VORTEX Theater Review
Methinks that in much of the public’s mind, Noël Coward is mainly considered to be the consummate sophisticate, a Britty witty wordsmith and wag able to sling lyrics and bon mots along with the best playwrights and songwriters with Cole Porter-esque ease. While all this is quite true, Coward’s groundbreaking hit, The Vortex -- which he not only wrote but co-starred in as Nicky Lancaster and made him an overnight sensation in 1924 -- proves that there was much more to Coward than the ability to render droll repartee and songs. Indeed, he also created superb anti-Nazi plays and movies.
While The Vortex certainly has more than its fair share of sharp banter, it is also a powerful dramedy about vanity, adultery, repressed homosexuality, substance abuse and more among an upper class milieu, with its hangers-on. Nicky’s (Craig Robert Young, whose TV credits include Hawaii Five-O) interactions with his emasculated father David (John Mawson, whom, according to the playbill is “a classically trained British actor” whose stage credits include Sherlock Holmes and various Shakespearean parts) and clash with his mother Florence (theatre veteran Shannon Holt) may call to mind Eugene O’Neill’s tragedies and James Dean’s tortured relationships with his onscreen 1950s’ fathers. Nicky’s confrontation with the vapid materialism of his pretentious mother and most of her crowd could even be said to presage Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) predicament in 1967’s countercultural classic The Graduate (“Plastics” indeed!).
Florence is a fading beauty whose obsession with her looks and age overshadows all else in her life, which is full of pretensions. This single-minded fixation on eternal youth and attractiveness greatly impacts upon her family and friends. Daniel Jimenez plays Florence’s gigolo Tom Veryan as a bland bloke whose main virtues are his relative youthfulness and generic handsomeness. In a bit of nontraditional casting, Skye LaFontaine (who is apparently part-Black, a former beauty pageant contestant and daughter of voiceover artiste Don LaFontaine) plays the English “lady” Bunty Mainwaring whom Nicky is courting (perhaps, subconsciously, to be his beard). Cameron Mitchell, Jr. (also the spawn of Hollywood royalty) plays the effeminate Paunceforth “Pawnie” Quentin, who favors maroon and kerchiefs. As the savvy Helen Saville, Florence’s best friend, Victoria Hoffman has the unenviable task of being a truth teller amidst this not-so-rarefied realm of gossamer glitter, glitz and artifice.
In Matrix Theatre’s reprise of last spring’s Malibu Playhouse production (with much the same cast), the action -- which Coward set during the post-World War I Jazz Age -- has been reset to London during the swinging sixties. As readers of this reviewer’s oeuvre (talk about “pretentiousness”!) may recall, this critic often looks askance at updating and relocating plays, such as all those Greek classics staged without a toga in sight. But here the transition of Coward’s original text works well. England during that period of the Beatles, Cream, Stones, etc., was extremely interesting, and The Vortex’s themes of promiscuity, drugs and the breakdown of classes provides a natural background for Coward’s piece de resistance. And this iconic era gives director Gene Franklin Smith, sound designer Joe Calarco and choreographer Anna Safar a legitimate excuse to play snippets of those fab sixties tunes listeners still love to hum along and tap their tootsies to.
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Scenic designer Erin Walley also captures the mod spirit of the times in acts one and two, although the third and final act is aptly universal and ageless, as its overriding theme can be traced right back to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (with or without togas). Smith’s direction of his ensemble of gifted thespians is spot on, and Young’s depiction of Nicky’s struggle to rise above being just a callow upper class lad in the role that made Sir Noël famous (and rightfully so) is moving to watch. However, during the denouement his declamation of the title word was hard to hear, so this critic had to look up Nicky’s line vis-à-vis his mother and her infidelity: “We swirl around in a vortex of beastliness.” But this is a mere quibble as the Matrix’s three-acter is well worth seeing and eminently worthy of its creator.
Speaking of actors who have played Nicky Lancaster, here’s your Fun Fact of the day, Dear Reader: Four years after Coward’s breakthrough play premiered it was adapted for the screen, with Nicky portrayed in 1928’s The Vortex by Ivor Novello. This then-British leading man also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s breakthrough Jack the Ripper-themed silent screen classic The Lodger. Perhaps more importantly, Novello also wrote Johnny Weissmuller’s immortal line -- “Me Tarzan, you Jane” -- in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man. (Whereas, speaking of updating, the Keystone XL Pipeline’s slogan could be: “Me tar sands, you pain!”)
The Vortex is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Dec. 14 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, L.A., California, 90048. For info: (323) 960-7735. For tickets: www.plays411.com/vortex.