A pair of sensational lead performances and a fabulous 1960s design are the best reasons to catch this rare revival of Noël Coward’s 1924 hit The Vortex despite a half-hour or so of cuts which make the latest Malibu Playhouse production a less-than-unqualified success.
A 25-year-old Noël himself starred in The Vortex’s London premiere just a year before Hay Fever made him a play-writing superstar (to be followed in 1930 by Private Lives and in 1941 by Blithe Spirit), and for its first two-thirds, we have every reason to expect Sir Noël’s first great commercial success to be the non-stop comedy bonbon his later smashes proved.
The Vortex introduces us to Nicky Lancaster (Craig Robert Young), a talented 20something Londoner with a mother who could have easily given Auntie Mame Dennis a lesson in fabulousness. Not only is Florence Lancaster (Shannon Holt) the grooviest, most glamorous mom in all of London, she’s got a boy toy younger than her son (Daniel Jimenez as Tom Veryan), a loyal sidekick more than willing to bask in her best friend’s glow (Victoria Hoffman as Helen Saville), a flamingly gay chum (Cameron Mitchell Jr. as Pauncefort “Pauney” Quentin), and a fuddy-duddy of a husband (Will Carney as David Lancaster) apparently clueless to his wife’s infidelities.
As for Nicky, well what young man-about-London wouldn’t wish for a fiancée as lovely and well-heeled as Bunty Mainwaring (Skye LaFontaine), though truth be told, Nicky doesn’t seem all that turned on by the fair young Bunty nor all that enthusiastic about tying the wedding noose. (Anyone familiar with Coward’s life and loves can guess why.)
Add to this the fact that Florence’s Tom and Nicky’s Bunty used to be an item (and still have the hots for each other) and you’ve got a recipe for a love quadrangle the likes of which Coward later turned into Private Lives.
The bons mots fly fast and furious and in true Cowardian fashion all the way up to intermission, and the Malibu Playhouse production’s time travel to the Swinging Sixties works quite marvelously, allowing scenic designer Erin Walley, costume designer Brian Primeaux, and hair and makeup designers Christina Culinski and Dale Johnson to transport us back to the era of miniskirts, teased hair, sleeveless shifts, Nehru jackets, and paisley prints.
Then, in a mood shift not helped by excessive editing, the “vortex of beastliness” in which mother and son “swirl about” (Nicky’s words, not mine) causes Florence to face both the reality revealed in her mirror and her son’s rapidly escalating drug addiction as The Vortex segues from frothy comedy to stark drama.
Unfortunately, Nicky’s vicious attacks on his mother’s delusions of youth and beauty ended up provoking laughter from much of the opening night crowd, possibly the result of half-an-hour or so of Coward’s original text transporting us too abruptly into dramatic territory.
On a far more positive note, both Holt and Young give powerhouse performances under Smith’s generally assured directorial hand.
The divine Holt makes every role she plays deliciously, indelibly her own, and her Florence is no exception, a bouffant blonde mess of woman holding on to her fading youth and beauty by a slender thread.
Native Brit Young could easily step into the shoes of just about every Coward romantic lead, but he is especially fine as Nicky, and never more so than in the Vortex’s devastating gut punch of a finale, played to the hilt by the production’s two stars.
Still, Noël Coward is too skilled, too assured, too celebrated a writer to be subjected to as much tinkering there has been in this rare revival. Simply put, too much is missing in the under-90-minute end result.
In addition to the first-rate design elements mentioned previously, sound designer Greg Chun’s nostalgic blend ‘60s hits by Petula, Dusty, and Herman (of Hermits fame) and Derrick McDaniel’s mood-enhancing lighting prove winners as well, with Christina Covarrubias’s groovy choreography serving as icing on the cake.
The Vortex is produced by Claudia Zahn. Ricky Irwin is stage manager.
Ultimately, it is the production’s two stars who make The Vortex worth a drive to Malibu Playhouse, in addition to the taste the revival provides of Noël Coward’s early work. Still, this Vortex would have been even tastier had audiences been offered the complete meal.
Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.
April 11, 2014
Photos: Brian McCarthy