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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
This play, which in 1924 put Noël Coward's name on the theatrical map, begins as a comedy of manners, but the veneer of its characters' lives soon gives way and by its end, it delivers a wallop of remarkable gravitas. Although it may not effervesce with quite as much wit as Coward's best-known plays, it is a work of trenchant probity that engagingly builds to its powerful conclusion.
The subjects touched upon in The Vortex -- ranging from a mother's affair with a young man of her son's generation to the son's drug abuse -- were so controversial in their day they prompted charges the play was a publicity stunt. Perhaps it was, but if so, a worthy one.
Now, of course, it wouldn't raise an eyebrow, but its strengths continue to shine through. This inaugural production of Innocent Theater has its own publicity hook -- two of its company members are daughters of well-known actors -- but here again I am pleased to report that Trip Cullman's inventively-staged work can stand proudly on its own feet, regardless of the pedigrees of two-ninths of its cast.
The play opens as a bunch of vain, sophisticated but vacuous Londoners gather for early evening cocktails at the flat of Florence and David Lancaster (Kathryn Gracey and Andrew Shulman). Most of the characters are around just for atmosphere, but not the young man Florence has invited, Tom Veryan (Louis Cancelmi), with whom she seems to share an inordinate amount of affection. (The aloof Mr. Lancaster spends most of the play, and apparently most of the Roaring 20's, sulking in less festive parts of the house.) Shortly, their son Nicky (James Kaliardos), a sensitive twenty-four year old musician just back from Paris, arrives with the shocking announcement that he is engaged. His fiancée, with the priceless name Bunty Mainwaring (Elisabeth Waterston), will soon join the party as well.
At first blush, it appears Nicky is a spoiled "Mama's boy," and that mother is experiencing the sort of jealousy that might be expected as she learns she is "losing" her son. Partly. But Coward has several twists in store for us, the first of which is that Tom and Bunty have "known" each other before. As the scene changes to a weekend at the Lancaster's country house, with all guests plus one in tow, it quickly becomes clear both mother and son are losing their lovers. But the fireworks surrounding these revelations only set the stage for Coward's final act, in which Nicky will have an ugly confrontation with his mother, that becomes a starving son's desperate and impassioned plea for love from his emotionally vacant mother.
Coward starred as Nicky in the original production [Trivia question: Who was Coward's understudy in that original production? Answer: an unknown young actor by the name of Gielgud.], and while Kaliardos's portrayal might not exactly remind us of Coward, he manages the role most ably. His Nicky possesses a boyish mix of optimism and anxiousness, which subtly telegraphs much of what is yet to be disclosed. ("I've grown up all wrong," he will exclaim.) In the play's final scene, he exhibits a well-thought-out explosiveness. Gracey is equally adept at revealing hints of Florence's fabric: a woman who calculates her every move to her own advantage (when the phone rings, director Cullman has her wait before answering, lest she seem unoccupied or over-eager to the caller) and who, as Nicky tells her, "never loves anyone" but rather "love[s] them loving you."
The remaining cast members are also more than up to the task. The two standouts are Dean Nolen as the tart-tongued Pauncefort "Pawnie" Quentin and Tessa Auberjonois as the hyper-theatrical Clara Hibbert, a singer with a headache and a need to lie down. Trip Cullman has directed all in a period-sensitive but spirited sensibility. No effort has been made to jazz up the performances as in the recent revival of Coward's Design for Living, but it never feels like a stale relic either.
Adding tremendously to the production's tone are the splendid set and costume designs of artist Ruben Toledo and his fashion designer wife, Isabel. The sets, instead of aspiring to the elegance of period detail, take a fanciful approach -- white blocks with cartoonish black decoration that are moved around to form everything from chairs and sofas, to tables and even a piano. These are augmented, sometimes to comic effect, by slides projected onto frames set in the walls of the set. An impressive deco touch is added by having characters appear in silhouette behind these screens. The wonderful costumes, on the other hand, are a celebration of period style, the men dressed mostly in elegant penguin suits, the women in dresses featuring metallic geometry and filigree that suggest they are all aware of the latest rage. Carol Ramer's plastered down hair designs (often covered by head-hugging hats) is also right on target.
In addition to debuting a new theater company. this production also unveils a new performing space, contained in the studio of Diane Von Furstenburg in the far West Village. The high-ceilinged (skylit!) cube which forms the playing area is attractive and well-suited to theatrical production, although the acoustics leave a great deal to be desired. Hopefully, this problem that can be rectified before the space is used again. Both newcomers are welcome additions.