Who doesn’t love a good mystery? With the world premiere of Topher Payne’s Swell Party, Georgia Ensemble Theatre presents a hilarious fresh take of a “who done it” story that is filled with eccentric characters, witty dialogue and talented cast.
Based on true events, Swell Party offers an intriguing look at Southern aristocratic royalty where tradition, duty and honor abound. After Smith Reynolds (Weston Manders), the heir to the family fortune, arrives at the estate with his new fiancée, he mysteriously turns up dead. Uncovering the truth turns into a wildly hilarious romp through the events leading up to the fateful morning. What makes the play so enjoyable are the quirky characters and the strong, brilliant dialogue that most of them speak.
Told in a series of flashback testimonials, the story unfolds at a quick pace. Each of the characters take on the characteristics and perceptions of the person telling the story. The one that becomes most memorable is acting coach Blanche Yurka’s stoy. Played wonderfully by Tess Malis Kincaid, the character’s scenes become some of the show’s most memorable. When Kincaid takes the stage, an immediate eruption rolls through the theater.
In the role of Babe Collier Vaught, Kate Donadio creates a compelling characterization of the estate’s social secretary. Her closely guarded secrets are subtly revealed throughout the show, and she is perfect alongside Jo Howarth’s strong performance as Kate Reynolds, Smith’s aunt. While Kate is open about her manipulation, Babe is more passive and ultimately more deceptive.
As Libby Holman Reynolds, Suehyla El-Attar is funny without going over the top. Disliked by most onstage, she manages to keep her character sympathetic despite the accusations that she murdered her husband. Her “Eliza Doolittle” moments add to the character’s charm, but it is her fiery showdown at the end that capstones the actresses versatility.
The play’s strong writing and sharp quips could easily hide the fact that the investigator, Erle McMichael (Scott Depoy), is a stock character, but the ending where he pulls the conclusion together makes it ever more glaring. Plus, Depoy had one of opening night’s weaker performances with too many flubbed lines to ignore. Rounding out the cast is Tony Larkin’s commendable performance as Smith’s friend Ab.
This dark comedy does have a dramatic undercurrent that rips through it. The idea of false appearances and the questioning of empty traditions are explored at various moments in the play, but Payne keeps these themes subtle, giving the production depth without detracting from the story. While it doesn’t rise to level of the past summer’s Evelyn in Purgatory, Swell Party is a forceful and brilliant take on a familiar genre. Not a lot of writers could make it look as easy as Payne does.
Thoroughly entertaining, Swell Party, directed by Shannon Eubanks, runs through January 27, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s website. The show runs a little over two hours plus an intermission.
– Kenny Norton