Kathryn Gracey and James Kaliardos in The Vortex(Photo: Greg Kadel)
Kathryn Gracey and James Kaliardos in The Vortex
(Photo: Greg Kadel)
When Diane von Furstenberg has an opening, the fashion world notices. This time, however, she's also attracted the attention of the theater community. Having conquered fashion with wrap dresses, von Furstenberg searched for something new to do with her downtown studio and thought, "Why not use it as a theater?" Hence the Innocent Theater's production there of Noël Coward's seminal play The Vortex.

When asked if anything drew her to the work of Noël Coward, von Furstenberg replied with fashionable cool, "No. It was an opportunity." An opportunity that the Innocent Theater Company was grateful to seize. "Diane lent us her aura," gushes director Trip Cullman, triggering producer/actor James Kaliardis to quip, "I wish I had her aura!" The woman's magnetism captured the opening night party, even in the company of stars like supermodel Shalom Harlow. At what other Off-Off Broadway opening could one expect supermodels and mega-designers to be on the guest list? At what downtown theater facility might one see an original Warhol silkscreen, an exotic white bird in a bamboo cage, or a decorative spiral staircase overlooking a pool?

It is très apropos that this space should house the first work of Noël Coward. After all, Coward's Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, and Design for Living captured the world of high society in the first half ot he 20th century through the comedy of manners. Most people therefore associate Coward with light humor, but The Vortex shatters that image. In the play, Florence Lancaster (Kathryn Gracey) drives her son Nicky (James Kaliardos) to drugs and desperation in her pursuit of social approval. She fears growing old, so she has an affair with young Tom Veryan (Louis Cancelmi). Her other affairs with men and women drive Nicky to shout, "Your whole existence has degenerated into an endless, empty craving for admiration and flattery." He delivers a blistering condemnation of his world, saying: "We swirl about in a vortex of beastliness."

With this Hamlet-and-Gertrude-like confrontation, Coward abandons high comedy for high drama. The scene has the same Oedipal subtext that some find in Hamlet, but the Innocent Theater production brings that subtext to the surface, with Nicky's hand at one point lingering on his mother's knee. The play's homoeroticism is likewise stressed: As written, Florence's phone conversation with a mysterious woman named Inez has obvious sexual undertones, and Lancaster adds a sultry voice for emphasis. Inez's friend Helen is jealous of her, a fact that's made very clear as actress Alexandra Oliver's eyes water during the phone call. With these and other touches, director Cullman shows us why the play was almost banned after its 1924 West End premiere.

The recent Broadway revival of Design for Living also drove homoerotic subtext to the forefront: Alan Cumming played Otto with his token, flamboyant charm, to which Dominic West's Leo was receptive. The Innocent Theater would love to have beaten Roundabout to the reinterpretation: "I've wanted to do a Noël Coward play for some time," says Kaliardis. "I tried to get the rights to Design for Living, but the Broadway production had secured them."

So the company turned to The Vortex, securing not only the Diane von Furstenberg Studio but also the services of the famous artist/fashion duo Ruben and Isabel Toledo as set and costume designers, with interesting results. The designs on the production's backdrop recall those adorning von Furstenberg's monogrammed car, parked outside the theater. The set relies on projected images including that of an Erte-esque woman holding an Asian fan. The design of the production works not only because Art Deco and exoticism were fads of the 1920s, but because they are again today.

Isabel Toledo's costumes trade on understated elegance. The characters, in designer suits and dresses, create black and white stage pictures with splashes of color provided by M·A·C cosmetics and the characters' pink-tinged cocktails. Even Nathaniel Nicco-Annan's choreography, with its metric precision, nods more towards style than realism.

Noël Coward himself turned out to be an avatar of fashion. Almost 10 years after the premiere of The Vortex, he wrote that "With [the play's] success came many pleasurable trappings. A car. New suits. Silk shirts. An extravagant amount of pyjamas and dressing gowns, and a still more extravagant amount of publicity." Theater and fashion have always had a symbiotic relationship, and the Innocent Theater's production of The Vortex adds to this tradition a certain je ne sais quois.