click on photos to enlargeIn 1924, playwrights and novelists like Noel Coward and E.M. Forster had to disguise homosexual themes by cloaking them in metaphor and innuendo.This fact makes Coward's first huge success, The Vortex, all the more amazing. In it's own time the play was so controversial that Coward had trouble getting it staged, and it was called vulgar trash by many a critic.
Noel Coward, the master of sparkling, brittle but often shallow social comedy, writing a trashy vulgar play? The Vortex raised the veil on masked innuendo and dealt quite openly with topics such as, older women with young male lovers, rampant drug use in the '20's, and homosexuality. The first two acts of this now classic play, display all the wit and charm of Coward's later award winning comedies, but the third act takes a most unusual dramatic twist. The play today would best be described as a melodrama, but it truly defies any category.
Florence Lancaster, a famously self-indulgent older married woman has taken a very young lover. Her friends put up with her latest attempt at "staying young" and her husband remains sadder but wiser by ignoring it. Her beloved son, Nicky returns from Paris with a fiancee, which rather shocks Florence, as she refuses to see her son as grown up,and anyway, everyone more or less suspects Nicky is gay. Everyone except Nicky himself, who has taken to drugs in his attempts to ignore the truth about himself. Mother and son clash in one of the stage's most famous or infamous third acts ever written. Throw into this mix an ageless Coward-type homosexual who flings sarcastic remarks about with alarming accuracy, an over the top Opera diva, a manipulative young fiancee, a dim-witted boyfriend, and one sane, sound understanding friend, and you have a magnificent evening of theatre.
Off The Wall Theatre presented a rare production of Noel Coward's The Vortex at their tiny theatre on Wells Street in November. Dale Gutzman directed and played Pauncfort Quentin, a quintessential Coward character, the multi-talented Marilyn White played Florence Lancaster, and Jeremy Welter played Nicky her son. Welter, in the previous season, played Hamlet at Off The Wall to White's Gertrude. Carole Herbstreit-Kalinyen played the loyal down to earth friend, Helen Saville, Liz Mistele played Bunty Mainwaring, Nicky's fiancee, and Alex Hall played Tom Veryan, Florence's boy-toy. Donna Lobacz was the eccentric opera singer Clara Hibbert, Lawrence Lukasavage was the long suffering husband, David. Also in the cast were Sandy Lewis as Preston, the maid and Kurtis Witzelsteiner as a radical playwright.
Off The Wall Theatre was turned into three intimate settings by technical director David Roper, and the audience actually sat in the drawing room with the characters.
The Vortex was revived in London's West End in its last season, and remains an important piece of theatrical history, as well as a lively and vital entertainment.