The Vortex, Noel Coward’s first hit, blends the playwright’s signature fizzy banter with a dark undercurrent that garnered plenty of attention when the play first debuted in London in 1924. The version currently playing at the Matrix Theatre, a remount of the Malibu Playhouse’s production from earlier this year, fittingly transplants the action to the sixties, an era with at least as much murkiness lurking beneath its frivolity. Despite strong performances from the cast’s lead players and a three-act structure, the production directed by Gene Franklin Smith never quite gels into a fully realized arc with a finished emotional trajectory.
Florence (Shannon Holt), a frightfully vivacious, fading beauty wed to non-entity David (John Mawson), prepares to welcome home from Paris her son Nicky (Craig Robert Young) — and, unbeknownst to her, his 23-year-old fiancée Bunty (Skye LaFontaine). In between entertaining friends Helen (Victoria Hoffman) and Pawnie (Cameron Mitchell, Jr.), Florence gads about town with Tom (Daniel Jimenez), her much younger lover who possesses the charm and charisma of wet cardboard. The ecstatic reunion is soon complicated, however, by Nicky’s conspicuous drug problem and Tom and Bunty’s former romantic entanglement, forcing mother and son to acknowledge their role in creating the “vortex of beastliness” in which they wallow.
Florence and Nicky’s excessive intimacy is key to evoking the Oedipal uneasiness at the heart of The Vortex, and Holt and Young handle this masterfully. Holt’s brand of affection proves distinctly handsy, and her non-stop kissing and coddling suggests a woman for whom, as she argues, seduction is a way of being rather than a choice. Young’s costuming in the first scene (black turtleneck, white-blonde slicked-back hair) evokes Hamlet and his maternal obsessions, while Nicky’s effete, effeminate languor belies a more fundamental disquiet. Their onstage chemistry leads to a scorching third act, but the rapid escalation makes the scene feel more like a standalone set piece than a natural extension of the opening scenes. As Helen, Hoffman dispenses clear-eyed, compassionate advice from the sidelines.
Shon LeBlanc designs some fabulous costumes, including Pawnie's maroon velvet suit and a flowing emerald-and-gold pant suit for Florence. The second act set and flower power décor appear more California ranch style than British country estate, at times creating an odd backdrop for the play’s upper crust hobnobbing. The performance reviewed was plagued by sound issues that seemed to rattle the actors, with a persistently ringing telephone and an opening dance sequence in which the music abruptly cut out, leaving the cast to shimmy and titter at each other in silence.
The Vortex, The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Fairfax; through Dec. 14. (323) 960-7735; www.plays411.com/vortex
Jenny Lower on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: