Noel Coward made a number of significant contributions to theatre in the 20th century, both in England and the United States. You may be familiar with some of his lighter works, but Coward could manipulate drama in much the same way he did comedy, as the new production of Coward's 1924 drama The Vortex, which opened last night, amply proves.
The Vortex is about many things, but perhaps especially about the difference between surface appearances and the truth that lies beneath. One of the characters rightly observes that they are all caught in "the ceaseless din of trying to be amused," and they will pay any price. The play's complex, often irrational characters are frequently too willing to do just that.
Florence and David Lancaster (Kathryn Gracey and Andrew Shulman) have lost most of the zest in their marriage, which has encouraged Florence to start a relationship with the much younger Tom (Louis Cancelmi). When her son, Nicky (James Kaliardos), returns to his parents after a year working in Paris, he brings along his fiancee, Bunty (Elisabeth Waterston), and another darker surprise of his own.
One of Coward's most striking achievements is in preventing the play from descending too far into ugliness. He always keeps the purpose of the story clear, and handles the transition from light to dark throughout the piece with great ease. There are laughs to be found in the play, and there are times that The Vortex almost seems like a comedy, but the play remains well balanced from beginning to end.
To this end the direction, by Trip Cullman, assists greatly. Cullman almost seems to be working with Coward to keep the play's tension and humor in check, without allowing the play to lapse into satire or melodrama. Though the action does lag once or twice, Cullman is also generally able to keep the show moving briskly through its three intermissionless acts. Isabel Toledo's slightly exaggerated but elaborate costumes, Ruben Toledo's eye-catching sets (augmented by Dru Whitacre's striking projections), and Martin Posta's lights, all appointed in black and white, brilliantly support Cullman's work and Coward's play.
The actors also do not disappoint. As the centerpieces of the play, Gracey's Florence and Kaliardos's Nicky garner the most attention, and both do very well, especially as the play approaches its final, dramatic scenes. Though Alexandra Oliver, as Florence's friend and confidant Helen, and Tessa Auberjonois as a frustrated singer, stand out among the other cast members, everyone turns in a detailed, effective performance.
The Vortex encourages us to remember that nothing should necessarily be taken at face value, and that taking the easy road doesn't always lead to success or happiness. These lessons could equally as well be applied to the author of the play, who proved, in one of his earliest efforts, that he should not be dismissed as a dramatic playwright himself. If you need to convince yourself of Coward's ability, allow this production of The Vortex to remove all doubt.