The Vortex is English writer Noël Coward’s first commercial success focusing on sexual vanity, drug abuse among the upper classes, repressed homosexuality, and Oedipal jealousy. The original production, a story about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine addicted son, took place in 1924, and was a wild sensation because of its utterly scandalous nature for the times. That was then.
The current revival as presented by the Malibu Playhouse, directed by Gene Franklin Smith, brings this piece forward to the “live it up” mod era 1960s, attempting to offer a current view on a play that could easily be left on the shelf. Undoubtedly The Vortex is one of Coward’s more contemporary plays, facilely updated to a modernized setting, but only just. The ideas are seemingly relevant. The production a bit out of step.
The time period fits and that’s a plus for this show which features simply bombastic behavior and more or less outlandish dialog, playing a mercurial role against up-to-date savoir faire. It works just nicely for a flamboyant Peter Pan-ish woman-of-means living in the heyday of culture rebellion.
In The Vortex, Nicky Lancaster brings his fiancée, Bunty, home to introduce her to his famous mother, stage actress Florence Lancaster. Nicky is shocked to discover that Florence has taken a much-younger lover. There is an immediate clash of jealously between Bunty and Fl0rence over Nicky’s attention. Then there is the uncomfortableness of Florence’s boy-toy Tom and his past “acquaintance” with Bunty. Everyone’s emotions publically play out and when Bunty ditches Nicky to run off with Tom, Florence and Nicky are forced to confront very ugly truths about themselves.
Lead character Florence Lancaster is by dictionary definition the epitome of vanity. She is a woman who simply cannot face the inevitability of age. Her denial is so deep that neither marriage, nor motherhood, nor mirrors of any sort can penetrate the never-ending fabulous of her life. Because if they did she would be utterly destroyed. She has and continues to carry on with younger lovers, London socials, gatherings at the country house and whatever diversion she can concoct to keep herself and her friends locked in a magical “present”. And it’s killing all of her relationships.
Nicky Lancaster is the more or less neglected son of the household. He has grown up without a care in the world and all the money and privileges anyone could want, but is lacking in the single ingredient he desires — real love from his mother. With Bunty’s departure Nicky is vicious in his attack at a genuinely in the dark Florence. His repressed anger turns almost to violence against a Florence who doesn’t understand his behavior. She is truly beyond comprehending the seriousness of her parental lack and the consequences that Nicky is pushing right into her face. In fact, both of their behaviors are entirely disturbing, adults unable to be adults, as they are. Accusations and guilt trips and an inability to reason with or face reality by both of them.
Very poignantly also a commentary on the forever young La La Land-scape, The Vortex has its moments. When they arrive they do create a hard pause. But mostly there isn’t a lot of depth to be found now that we’ve faced several decades of recreational and violent drug use, along with ever more decadent, self-centered behaviors of every new generation since this play’s inception. And so even the 60s placement, although interesting, congenial and fun, still feels stifled, boxed in, light, dated. The material can only stretch so far into our present consciousness.
The better half of this production lies within two solid scenes that take place in the second act, dramatically punching the vanity and Oedipal themes through.
The first between Florence and her best friend Helen. In so many instances in this play and in their lives together Helen has attempted to bring Florence down to earth and out of denial. Helen’s final private moment with Florence, a fairly penetrating exchange by both women, leaves her with the shocking realization that her friend can never be saved.
The second and final scene of this play excruciatingly exposes both Nicky’s and Florence’s emotional blind sides, limitations and rather horrifying selfishness that will absolutely result in a much more severe end for both of them shortly after this ultimate failure of humanity.
Endowed with a well-seasoned, very talented cast, The Vortex is nevertheless, not Malibu Playhouse’s best production this season. Coward’s material no matter how contemporary, doesn’t resonate powerfully. It is however still worth seeing for the moments that do land and the climactic, stomach punching finale.
Starring Shannon Holt as Florence, Craig Robert Young as Nicky. Also with Will Carney as David, Victoria Hoffman as Helen, Daniel Jimenez as Tom, Skye LaFontaine as Bunty and Cameron Mitchell Jr as Pawnie.