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"The Vortex": a pas de deux for mother and son

Mother and son have a talk
Mother and son have a talk
Brian McCarthy

Theater: "The Vortex"

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The sophisticated, snarky bon mots of Noel Coward floated up and got lost in the rafters of the Malibu Playhouse. At intermission the man sitting next to me asked how I liked the play.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “I didn’t get a word they said.”

“Oh thank god,” he said. “I thought it was just me.”

Judging by the pervasive silence during the performance, the rest of the audience apparently didn’t get what was being said, either. Whether it was the accents or the acoustics or the rushed, shrill delivery, the audience didn’t respond with much enthusiasm or amusement. But they gave the play a standing ovation at the end anyway.

The play is The Vortex, the dramatic comedy that was Coward’s first commercial success, the one that made him a major star in the 1920s.

A vortex is defined as a swirling mass, such as a whirlpool or tornado, that sucks everything near it toward its center. And that would be Florence, an aging prima donna so intensely self-absorbed that she sucks the air out of every room she enters.

Florence (Shannon Holt) has brought her latest young paramour, Tom (Daniel Jimenez) home with her, even though her husband (Will Carney) lives there as well. And, visiting with his fiancée, is Nicky (Craig Robert Young), a troubled young man dealing with (and attempting to overlook) his homosexuality, his mother’s smothering hold on him, and his Oedipal feelings for her.

Coward wrote the part of Nicky for himself, and it was probably the closest he ever came to publicly acknowledging his own homosexuality.

Originally produced in 1924, the play shocked the London and New York audiences with its subject matter: Florence’s serial adultery, Nicky’s homosexuality and drug addiction, and the seething tension between mother and son. Part of the tension comes from Nicky’s stubborn naivete as he badgers her for an answer to the question of whether she has actually been sleeping with Tom. And all the other young men she has attracted over the years.

Director Gene Franklin Smith has chosen to reset the play in 1965, however, and in my view it doesn’t translate well to that decade. While the issues involved are still with us, even now, the shock value is long gone. The sixties was the decade of rebellion, free love, psychedelic drugs, the Stonewall riots, the growth of experimentation and the anti-establishment counterculture in America as well as in Britain. The crises of the principals in The Vortex would be as recognizable in the ‘60s as they were in the ‘20s, but the reactions to them would be decidedly different, and TheVortex would be an entirely different play.

In the second act the play does become an entirely different play. The conflicts are acknowledged, if not resolved, in a darkly moving climax that traps both mother and son for a lifetime in their tragically perverse relationship.

The Vortex will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 through May 18th at Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu. Phone 310-589-1998 for tickets.