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Thursday, January 24, 2013

'Swell Party' serves fizzy cocktail of comedy, drama and murder

GUESS WHOS COMING TO DINNER? Weston Manders and Jo Noonan in Swell Party
The title of Topher Payne's Swell Party immediately evokes Cole Porter's silly, swinging number "Well, Did You Evah!" with its recurring exclamations "What a swell party this is!" With the play's seemingly light-hearted premise - an aristocratic aviator elopes with a brassy Broadway showgirl, throwing his starchy Southern family into a tizzy - Swell Party initially sounds like a Jazz Era romp worthy of Noel Coward or P.G. Wodehouse.

Swell Party puts in place the elements of screwball comedy but adds considerably more than that. Payne draws inspiration from the real-life mystery surrounding the death of aviator Zachary Smith Reynolds, son of the founder of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune. Swell Party also provides a mash-up of Tennessee Williams-style Southern Gothic and drawing-room whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie. Director Shannon Eubanks guides an effervescent cast between the overlapping genres, as Payne's skillfully constructed play almost gives its audience too much to digest.

The action takes place in a stately library in the family's estate "Reynolda," ruled with an iron fist by matriarch Kate Reynolds (Jo Hawarth) and her prim right-hand woman Babe Collier Vaught (Kate Donadio). Dashing young Smith (Weston Manders) turns their Old South expectations upside down when he brings his new wife Libby Holman Reynolds (Suehyla El-Attar) and her oddball, turban-wearing acting coach Blanche Yorka (Tess Malis Kincaid) for a visit that stretches over months.

Swell Party cuts back and forth between the culture-clash conflicts of the newlyweds' extended stay with a magistrate's inquest on the day following Smith's death. Scott DePoy plays canny court official Erle McMichael as he tries to uncover the facts, despite dealing with one of South Carolina's most powerful families.

Payne occasionally takes advantage of the Rashomon-like flashback approach, in which memories reflect the biases of the individual witnesses. Bohemian Blanche finds herself baffled by the Southern belles, so when she describes an event, Donadio and Howarth turn their stuffy, defensive characters into zany Dixie stereotypes.

In general, though the characters tend to be theatrical archetypes, the actors never play them as stock roles, possibly because they're based on real people. Rather than portray Libby as a showbiz airhead, El-Attar conveys the role's well-rounded personality. She brings out the earthy comedy of Libby's uncouth manners, but also the strength of her unlikely romance with Smith, despite their dissimilar backgrounds. Manders' performance as Smith sets an initially blithe tone that doesn't entirely match her character's knotty personality traits, which emerge in the second act.

As Swell Party moves toward exposing its final secrets, the big laughs and mystery red herrings can get in the way of the darker themes on which the play ultimately relies. Nevertheless, the comedy-drama touches on all the bases of breezy humor, family psychodrama and surprise revelations, living up to its considerable ambitions. All things considered, it's pretty swell-egant.

Swell Party. Through Jan. 27. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 950 Forest St. 8 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 4:30 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sun. $20-$33. 770-641-1260.

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