11/21/2019 SWELL PARTY Process Theatre Co
(Bias Alert: I often work with playwright Topher Payne as well as many of the folks in this cast and am inclined to view their work through approval-tinted glasses. OCD readers may recognize much of this essay from my comments on the 2013 premier of this play at Georgia Ensemble Theatre.)
Amazingly, some facts of this intriguing historical footnote are NOT in dispute. On July 6, 1932, Reynolds Tobacco scion Z. Smith Reynolds was shot in the head with a .32 caliber pistol. He had just brought home his new bride, actress Libby Holman, and the starched Southern Reynolds clan (the TOBACCO Reynolds clan) was not pleased. Investigator Eric McMichael tries to get to the root of the tragedy, and, of course, everyone disagrees. Atlanta playwright Topher Payne has fashioned an exhilarating and original piece that Roshomons together a series of recountings and digressions, that, ultimately is enjoyable in both its many wonderful parts and in its collective effect. I really enjoyed the sharp characters, the witty banter, the period details, and the sly hindsight jokes. Unlike the 2013 Georgia Ensemble premiere of this play, this time I really cared about young Smith and his death as much as the eccentric characters in his orbit.
In my (many) previous reviews of Mr. Payne’s work, I could not hide my fan-boy enthusiasm for the way he builds character, for his fluency in the way people talk and interrelate, and for his writing as a whole. Here, he offers a nicely ambiguous script that filters the plot through the characters’ (usually) faulty and bias-ridden memories (sort of how I filter my analyses of all the plays I see – but I digress). He builds character not only through what his creations say and do, but in how they tell their stories.
Built as a series of interviews with investigator McMichael, we see the same events through quite skewed lenses, the characters through how they see each other. For example, when uptight widow/assistant Babe Vaught talks about the new Mrs. Reynolds, we see a sultry lounge singer / gold-digger, quite different than how Mrs. Reynolds appears in others’ recounting. And, of course, when eccentric-to-the-eye-teeth “Acting Coach” Blanche Yurka tells anything, what we see is an over-the-top hilarious picture of a diva-amok-among-the-extras told as a formally-staged digression (missing only the pie).
Because of the off-kilter “disconnects” between the stories, the obvious biases, obsessions, and annoyances that can’t help but find their way into the individual stories, we never see a “real” version of young Smith Reynolds, only everybody else’s idea(l) of him. Fortunately, this only drives the narrative better, making us truly wonder who he really was and what really happened to him.
This is a very different production than the one we saw almost seven years ago in Roswell. OnStage Atlanta’s more intimate venue is a double-edged sword – we are more deeply drawn into the world of these character, more of an immersion into the story than the proscenium-based remove that blunted the edge of this script at G.E.T. On the other hand, the lower budget left a lighting design that seemed a little too “less than” for my tastes. Instead of a bright party atmosphere for the flashbacks, and a rain-soaked gloom for the “present,” we’re given just bright and less-bright, with no attempt made to create warm/cool or color contrasts; in fact, the first “bump” to a McMichael scene seemed like a miscue, until the concept took hold.
The set (by Barry West), the props (by Chase Weaver), and the costumes (by Jane Kroessig), thankfully, were creations of elegance and beauty, truly setting the (very specific) period and locale parameters required. Dan Bauman’s sound design also scored points for music choice, weather effects, and off-stage voices, including an amusingly “distressed to sound like radio” curtain speech.
Just as at G.E.T., no small amount of credit for the success of this show goes to the cast, who have the unenviable task of playing several versions of their characters – well, except for Jennifer Lee’s Blanche Yurka – she’s nicely over-the-top looney-tunes no matter who’s telling the tale. DeWayne Morgan’s McMichael is very much the “voice of reason,” asking telling questions while staying strictly within the tight confines of Southern Gentility’s “Rules of Engagement.” He does a brilliant job of showing anger and disdain without really showing anger and disdain. It’s a multi-layered and subtle performance that grounds the play and, ultimately, gives it wings.
I also really liked Bryn Striepe’s Babe Vaught, who changes the most with each person’s viewpoint. The point is that, to most of these people, she’s a fade-to-the-background cipher, who, we come to learn, isn’t at all comfortable in that background. Betty Mitchell, as matriarch Kate Reynolds, mitigates her occasional mush-mouth line-lapse with a gravitas that brooks no denial (or resistance).
Amanda Cucher appealing as the new Mrs. Reynolds, her New York accent making her a true “alien” amongst all these Southern gentlefolk. And, in a vast improvement over the GET production, the young men (Parker Fox Ciliax as Smitty and Matthew Busch as Ab Walker), are alive, dynamic, and compelling. Sure, their role in everyone’s story, is “leading-man bland” (isn’t it?), but both give compelling performances that put them on equal footing with the women-folk.
Director Suehyla El-Attar (who played Libby at G.E.T.) directs with an eye focused on character and pace and period, and the entire production runs as smoothly as a crop-duster NOT “ditching in the drink.”
This is a beautiful play by one of Atlanta’s most talented writers, and I thoroughly encourage you to not pass it by (even though this is sadly its closing weekend). Mr. Payne has a lot of axes-to-grind here – privilege vs working class, the hypocrisy of “Southern Charm,” the cruel consequence of gossip, even the questionable source of one family’s wealth (“Will you stop actin’ like you’re friggin’ royalty? You’re Carolina tobacco farmers! You make cigarettes! You stink up fur coats and start a lot of house fires, it is not all that impressive!”), but manages to make them secondary to these brilliant characters and their story(s). There are no wallflowers at this particular party! If you are a musical-theatre geek (as am I), I challenge you to think of that title without also hearing the Cole Porter melody that usually accompanies it -- What a Swell-egant Elegant Party this is!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ProcessTheatre #SwellParty)