The Dead Writers Theatre Collective is a new company, but as the moniker implies, it comes with an established pedigree. Artistic director Jim Schneider, who has staged classics by Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde with graceful elan at Circle Theatre, brings a stated desire to produce works by and about great dead authors, with a "Masterpiece Theater"-style aesthetic.
Fair enough. Not everything benefits from, say, Sean Graney's deconstruction of canonical works for The Hypocrites. And though Coward remains popular on local stages, a sighting of his early 1924 work "The Vortex," with which Dead Writers makes its inaugural bow under Schneider's direction, has been rare since the author brought it here for a disastrous run in 1926.
But Coward's tale of a dilettantish and cocaine-snorting pianist, Nicky Lancaster, who returns from "a year's debauch" in Paris with his socialite fiancee, only to find his married mother, Florence, conducting a very public affair with a much younger man (who happens to be a former flame of Nicky's own beloved), just doesn't ignite here as effortlessly as past Schneider efforts.
Of course, what was once looked on as something shocking doesn't necessarily pack the same punch in our reality-TV era when, goodness knows, anything goes. But it's not the age of the subject matter that fails to fully engage. After all, the sexual improprieties of the 1920s British ruling class keep many"Downton Abbey"fans in thrall. It's the balance in the relationships that feels off-kilter in "The Vortex." Coward's tricky blend of Oedipal melodrama and brittle drawing-room banter doesn't gel seamlessly, and the connections between the three acts — each of which, taken individually, are well paced — feel slack when viewed in total.
At the end of the second act, Kaelan Strouse's Nicky realizes that Florence (Bonnie Hilton) has been making a fool of herself over the vapid and unfaithful Tom Veryan (Danny Pancratz). Tom and Nicky's own paramour, Bunty Mainwaring (Skye Shrum) have rekindled their previous affair, but the source of Nicky's emotional dissolution (abetted by generous helpings of nose candy) seems unclear — we certainly don't see great chemistry between Nicky and Bunty. Thus, his third-act denunciations of Florence in her boudoir seem out of frame — it's hard to believe that Nicky has only just figured out his mother's cougarlike tendencies and how they reflect his own toxic blend of self-loathing and narcissism.
But though "The Vortex" doesn't churn with the emotional heft intended, there are still points in its favor, including a well-appointed and flexible set by Edward Matthew Walter, and a particularly fine supporting turn from Teri Schnaubelt as Helen Saville, the voice of world-weary wisdom in this glittery-but-hollow world of human badinage.
Through Aug. 26 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.; $30 at 773-404-7336 or deadwriters.net
The perils of seeking retribution play out at a rather torpid pace in Colleen Wagner's morality tale, "The Monument," now in a close-up production with Idle Muse Theatre Company under Evan Jackson's direction.
It starts out promisingly, with Brian Bengtson's Stetko, an unrepentant soldier (in an unnamed but very Balkans-like scenario), facing execution by electric chair for raping and killing 23 women. He delivers a feverish and sometimes-sardonic monologue that matches the rantings of Little Alex from"A Clockwork Orange"in its hypnotic exploration of a debased and sadistic thrill killer. But when Stetko is released into the vague-but-vengeful custody of Mejra (the feverish-eyed Amy Harmon), he is forced to confront the consequences of his "just following orders" mindset.
Jackson and set designer Dennis Mae put us in the middle of this battle of wills in the tiny Side Studio space, and there are some early bruising physical encounters (choreographed by Greg Poljacik) that deliver visceral jolts. But Wagner's script, which runs nearly two hours without an intermission, hammers away at the same boldface talking points about the corrosive effects of revenge too often. Still, there are a few moments — such as Stetko's growing Lenny-like attachment to a rabbit, and the sorrowful excavation of the women he slaughtered — that send frissons of sympathy and horror down our spines.
Through Aug. 26 at Side Project Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.; $20 at 773-340-9438 or idlemuse.org