British actor and playwright Noël Coward must have had an affinity for The Vortex, his 1924 play on drug abuse and repressed sexuality among the upper crust in early 20th-century Britain. He in fact cast himself as central figure Nicky Lancaster in this, his first Broadway show, depicting a cataclysm of excess on the parts of mother and son. Composer and pianist Nicky, who has a serious coke problem and is flamingly gay (as Coward was), is a basket case amid his nympho mom Florence’s torrid affairs, one of which was with Tom Veryan, ex-fiancé of Bunty Manwaring, Nicky’s onetime trophy paramour.
No wonder Nicky’s so messed up. Keeping all the names straight is tough enough.
There’s a lot to learn about the playwright here, one of two Coward shows in repertory from Cygnet Theatre Company – namely how such a gluttonous life can so blatantly point fingers at those of like mind. That’s Coward’s genius. He drew his characters exactly as he saw himself, and that familiarity has resonated with theatergoers for decades. Add the superb production values from one of these installments and the (winded) self-loathing that fuels the other, and this program is a good, heady cross-section of the greatest farceur of all.
An opulent country home marks the insane good luck surrounding Judith Bliss’ noted West End stage career, the focus of Coward’s triumphant Hay Fever. Its stately winding staircase and ridiculous poshness are Judith’s narcissism incarnate, even as she announces she’s coming out of retirement to revive one of her greatest hits. Sorel and Simon, Judith’s kids and artists in their own rights, are caught up in Judith’s every whim as she regales four weekend guests with news of her comeback. From there, the family’s brusqueness takes center stage as a rich man’s game of charades fuels flirtations and other silliness among the befuddled visitors.
The Blisses are eventually groggy in their one-upmanship, with Judith reciting scenes from her play as husband David bellows passages from his latest novel and argues about the layout of Paris’ streets. The guests quietly filter out of the house as morning comes while the Blisses’ cacophony of self-absorption continues without them.
The irony is that the Blisses are actually a close family, quite supportive of each other’s endeavors. In their private moments, they even manage a modicum of self-effacement (officious David admits at one point that he’s really not a very good writer). It’s only in public that they revert to the insufferable; deep inside Coward’s wacky humor, it’s the Blisses against the world. Director Rob Lutfy draws that world with death-defying precision, coaxing unerring stylism from guests and hosts.
If Hay Fever invites our amusement at the Blisses, The Vortex seeks our revulsion toward the Lancasters. This is one of those plays that barely beat the censors, and British theatergoers were loath to see themselves as the beasts Coward thought some of them were. Florence’s lousy mothering is the stuff of sociopathology, with a hapless Nicky drowned by the upshot. Helmer Sean Murray certainly gets the vagaries of the relationship, but there’s no way he can direct around Nicky’s overlong and fractured plea for a better relationship with sex-crazed Florence, or at least her better angels. While we congratulate him on his epiphany, we’re never really sure how or why he experienced it.
The faulty development hobbles an otherwise remarkable evening for the remarkable Rosina Reynolds, who with Coward keeps things interesting amid hints at each woman’s humanity. Rachael Vanwormer has expanded her range exponentially in the years I’ve covered her; here, her Sorel Bliss is as mindlessly sycophantic as her Bunty is oddly bright and cheerful.
Paul Eggington has a good grasp on David Bliss’ savoir faire, but his big voice and presence seem out of character for the sulk in David Lancaster, Flo’s hub. Charles Evans, Jr.’s Nicky Lancaster is a man consumed, but Coward never gives him a transition between Nicky the drugger and Nicky the penitent. Everybody else is pretty good (including Rhona Gold in two nice subtext parts), and this repertory program can only fuel the hair-trigger acumen actors develop in playing roles simultaneously. (Emily Swallow had three gigrundous parts in the 2010 Old Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival; I still can’t get over her persistence and stamina!)
Sean Fanning’s sets are doubly functional, transitioning just enough for one show’s specific needs while casting Coward’s observations in stone. The big guy himself injects his own take, his giant visage pensively overlooking the shows from behind the rest of the tech.
“It is not the eyes of others that I am wary of,” Coward once said, “but of my own. I do not intend to let myself down more than I can possibly help, and I find that the fewer illusions I have about myself or the world around me, the better company I am for myself.” Spoken like a man with an uncanny capacity for self-actualization and foresight, the marks of a true artistic giant. With certain exceptions, the Cygnet rep program, fourth in the company’s history, is an entirely watchable case in point.
This review is based on the opening performances of Oct. Hay Fever and The Vortex run through Nov. 8 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. $39-$60. (619) 337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.