In 1932, during a party at the Winston-Salem estate of the wealthy Reynolds tobacco family, Zachary Smith Reynolds, young heir to the fortune, died under mysterious circumstances. He was found upstairs, bleeding and unconscious, with a bullet wound in his right temple. The death was originally thought to be suicide, but Reynolds’ wife and best friend were later charged with murder. Eventually the prosecutor dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and the suicide, or murder, remains one of the great mystery scandals of the 20th century.
It’s also the jumping-off point for Atlanta playwright Topher Payne‘s new play “Swell Party,” at Georgia Ensemble Theatre through January 27. Those familiar with Payne’s work will recognize pretty quickly that the play is a great match of writer to material. Entertainment more than historical accuracy is the goal here — neither playwright nor the scheming Southern characters would ever let the truth get in the way of a good story — and in Payne’s version of events we actually find out what happened that dark but not particularly stormy night.
We’re in the library of the family manor as an intrepid investigator, who’s also an old family friend, questions the family members and guests. It comes as no surprise that the matriarchs and divas of the Reynolds household are skilled at drinking, cat-fighting and delivering one-liners, all while looking great in period costume:
Kate: Get me a drink.
Ab: It’s nine o’clock in the morning.
Kate: Is the whiskey sleeping?
But “Swell Party” isn’t just set in the 1930s; it exhumes and thoroughly revives that era’s conventions. There’s the staunch dowager, the dashing aviator, the eccentric stage diva and the brash Broadway starlet, all behaving as they might had the play actually been written in the ’30s.
Even though Payne and cast are dealing with some familiar theatrical tropes, they dive in head first, which is what makes the enterprise delightful. Tess Malis Kincaid is obviously having fun as turbaned, spotlight-stealing diva Blanche Yurka, and Jo Howarth rules the roost with an iron fist (most often wrapped around a drink) as no-nonsense Southern matriarch Kate Reynolds.
Payne has a real facility with humor and a remarkably skillful way of moving the business of plot along. At 2½ hours, the mystery-comedy may run a little long for its purposes, but its construction is almost airtight, and it all seals shut with a satisfying click at the end. The device of flashbacks works especially well, and while this is not a work of grand, contemporary ambitions, it clips along mightily, always itself, and is impossible to resist.
“Swell Party” is charming, funny, lively and winningly old-fashioned. It’s a play that deserves to be a hit, and I think audiences will enjoy what’s being served here: it’s expertly and energetically done.
I think Payne is a super-talented writer — he’s proved himself time and again — and it’s now fair for him to expect more from audiences, and for audiences to expect more from him. “Swell Party” is frivolous fun, and the barbs, though there are plenty, never manage to point outward (or inward) as they could. It’s satisfyingly cute, but it can occasionally feel that both audience and playwright are soaking in a warm tub of comfortable conventions when it’s time to step out and dry off.