‘Vortex’ an exceptional debut for Dead Writers Theatre
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org July 25, 2012 5:16PM
Bonnie Hilton and Kaelan Strouse star in the Dead Writers Theatre Collective production of “The Vortex.” | Photo by Peter Bosy
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Dead Writers Theatre Collective at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Info: (773) 404-7336;
Updated: August 28, 2012 6:09AM
Drug addiction. Adultery. Sexual confusion. Loneliness. The terror of aging. The power of self-delusion. The tension of a mother-son relationship. The itch of gossip. The allure of fashion. And the bright light that can so easily flare out of even the most lavish existence, leaving hysteria and dark truth in its wake.
There you have it — just some of the many tantalizing ingredients in “The Vortex,” the 1924 Noel Coward play (and his first commercial hit) that deftly captured the upper-crust society of post-World War I England, and no doubt stirred up a neat bit of scandal in the process.
But here’s the real news: The revival of “The Vortex” now serving as the inaugural production of the wonderfully named Dead Writers Theatre Collective, is sensational. Under the impeccable direction of Jim Schneider (whose Circle Theatre productions of plays by Coward and Oscar Wilde have been uniformly exceptional), the show is supremely well-cast and acted. And every element of design (style is of the essence here) has a Broadway or opera house splendor that defies the dreary confines of the Greenhouse Theater Center.
At its core, “The Vortex” is a story about lying (primarily to oneself), and about the terrible price paid by those who fail to deal with authentic emotion. On one level it might even be seen as a sexy Flapper Age twist on the mother-son relationship in “Hamlet,” with all the attendant echoes of incest (as well as unspoken hints of homosexuality).
Florence Lancaster (Bonnie Hilton, who has something of a Judi Dench quality), is a married socialite who was once a great beauty, but is now desperately fighting middle age. While her very decent husband, David (subtly played by Noah Sullivan), stands quietly devastated, she is having her latest, very open fling with Tom Veryan (the poker-faced Danny Pancrantz), a rather dull upper class fellow young enough to be her son.
Her real son, Nicky (Kaelan Strouse, lanky, graceful and volatile), is a handsome, debauched, vaguely effeminate pianist of questionable talent who has just returned from a year of trust-fund bohemian excess in Paris. He has brought with him the spiky socialite he announces as his finacee — Bunty Mainwaring (an ideally calculating Skye Shrum) — a restless, audacious young woman with whom he is continually bickering. Things go from bad to worse between them once Bunty sees Tom, with whom she’d had an earlier affair and now once again eyes with interest.
Meanwhile, swirling through this crowd are several sharply etched friends and acquaintances, most notably Helen Savile (Teri Schnaubelt, who comes very close to stealing the show in each of her scenes), Florence’s elegant, straightforward, sharp-witted, slightly younger friend, who might just be a bit drawn to Nicky herself.
Pauncefort Quentin (a spot-on Rob Cramer), is the gay playwright who serves as Helen’s sparring partner. Clara Hibbert (zesty Betsy Pennington), is a wildly self-dramatizing opera singer. And Preston (a deft turn by Hillary Sigale), is the Lancasters’ young, no-nonsense housekeeper.
Every member of the cast has the Coward style down cold — stylishly arch when necessary, but blisteringly real at the crucial moments. If there is one flaw here it is that the final mother and son scene might have been just a bit more suggestive.
Set designer Edward Matthew Walter’s three fabulously elaborate Art Deco rooms (one highlighted by a peacock throne bed that could easily be auctioned off for a grand price at the end of the run) is worth a trip to the theater all by itself. So are Elizabeth Wislar’s spectacular costumes, with gowns, shoes, headwear and accessories to die for.
A “Vortex” both turbulent and beautiful.