Theater review: ‘Swell’ night for an inquest

Topher Payne’s “Swell Party” is a parlor-room whodunit based on the real-life story of Zachary Smith Reynolds, a small-time aviator who was heir to a big-time North Carolina tobacco empire.

Reynolds scandalized Winston-Salem, N.C., when he married Broadway siren Libby Holman, a Jewish woman several years his senior, and died of a mysterious gun-shot wound at the R.J. Reynolds estate in 1932.

He did not, as he liked to say in the play, “live to tell the tale.” The murky circumstances of his demise create a titillating template for Payne’s impressive dark comedy, which is having its world premiere at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell.

It’s a flickering-lights tingler of a play, which unfolds as an alternating series of interviews and flashbacks. On paper you might think a shot is fired in the first act, Smith Reynolds will never be heard from again, and that the drama turns on accusations, lies, innuendo and motives of greed and jealousy. That’s pretty much true, except that the corpse doesn’t die. And Payne proves himself quite adept at creating a Rashomon-meets-Tennessee Williams-style story where the truth remains elusive.

He writes four juicy parts for women, all directed to a hilt by Shannon Eubanks. Jo Howarth plays the dour and manipulative Kate Reynolds, Smith’s imperious aunt, who rules Reynolda House after the deaths of R.J. and Mary Reynolds. Suehyla El-Attar portrays Libby as a zaftig giggle box who is on to the fact that everyone thinks she is a horror. Tess Malis Kincaid has a blast as Libby’s acting coach, Blanche Yurka, a turban-wearing Norma Desmond type who is loyal to Libby and an unfathomable exotic to everyone else. And Kate Donadio is Babe Collier Vaught, a young widow who is Kate Reynolds’ social secretary. (Keep your eye on that one.)

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The men in the picture — including the investigator Erle McMichael (Scott DePoy) and Smith’s best pal, Ab Walker (Tony Larkin) — exist to serve the storytelling and aren’t nearly as fleshed out as the dames. And then there’s Smith, to whom Weston Manders brings a wonderful touch as a boozy, Southern preppy.

Like Williams, Payne, whose onstage cross-dressing and prolific pen make him Atlanta’s answer to New York’s Charles Busch, understands women. He’s good at getting in their clothes and inside their heads and I can just see him speaking lines as he writes. He’d probably make a great Blanche Yurka himself. He gives her all the best one-liners — about Katharine Hepburn, about Hamlet — and uses her as the mouthpiece for satirizing this smarmy milieu. About the only thing Blanche doesn’t do is hold a seance. Payne “gets” the abominable Aunt Kate, too. She’s a golden-age Hollywood battle ax and a bit of a Lillian Hellman creation, too.

These are stereotypes, of course. They work to make the drama more outrageous than it would be otherwise. Babe, who fairly drips sweetness but may not be as innocent as all that, is the most intriguing character. Payne sets her up to be Libby’s arch-nemesis. Again channeling vintage potboilers, it’s a rivalry worthy of Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis. Wait for it.

Though DePoy is a bit of a dud, the ensemble is mostly excellent. The design team really gets to pull out all the stops with period costumes (by Linda Patterson), the manor-like Reynolda (by Jonathan Rollins) and the over-the-top lighting (by Bryan Rosengrant).

The play does feel a little longer than necessary, the lines between present and past sometimes a little murkier than they should be. But it is a delightful and original treatment that balances froth with gravitas while investigating the meaning of lust, greed, hypocrisy and loss. More than Smith, Libby is the hero and victim here. That she lives to re-live the tale is what exalts her to the realm of the tragic.

“Swell Party” is anything but. It’s a den of snakes, waiting to strike.

Theater review

“Swell Party”

Grade: B+

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 4 p.m. Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 27. $23-$33. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Roswell Cultural Arts Center, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260; get.org

Bottom line: Most impressive.

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