‘Swell’ mys­tery

To­pher Payne spins South­ern who­dunit in­spired by true story

GA Voice - - A & E -

Play­wright To­pher Payne is known for his prolific writ­ing and his quick wit, but in “Swell Party,” open­ing next week at Ge­or­gia En­sem­ble The­ater, he has penned a per­sonal first – a mys­tery.

The openly gay writer (and GA Voice colum­nist) had a suc­cess­ful world pre­miere at the Roswell-based the­ater a few years ago with his gay-themed com­edy “To­kens of Af­fec­tion,” and now he is back there with an­other new work.

When a to­bacco heir re­turns to his South­ern home with a new wife, it sur­prises ev­ery­one, but that news be­comes sec­ondary when the groom turns up dead. The rest of the guests at his home try to put the pieces of the puz­zle to­gether and fig­ure out who­dunit.

Payne said he was in­spired by the un­solved death in 1932 of Smith Reynolds, who was the 20 year-old heir to the Camel Cigarettes for­tune. Reynolds was shot at his fam­ily es­tate in North Carolina.

“The prime sus­pect was his new wife, Libby Hol­man, a Broad­way star who was a dozen years older,” says Payne. “There were only a hand­ful of wit­nesses in the house, but the in­ves­ti­ga­tion fell apart be­cause ev­ery­one in­volved lied non­stop. It was never de­ter­mined if it was a mur­der or a sui­cide. The play has an opin­ion on that.”

“I wanted to play with that idea of truth be­ing rel­a­tive — the story is nar­rated by five dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and characters be­have dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing upon who’s nar­rat­ing,” Payne con­tin­ues. “If your best friend tells a story about you, and then the same story is told by some­one else who thinks you’re an id­iot, dif­fer­ent de­tails emerge.”

“Swell Party” is the first mys­tery from the writer, who ad­mits to be­ing a fan of the genre.

“I love the ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing back af­ter the big re­veal, pick­ing it apart, find­ing all the clues that were right in front of you the whole time,” he says. “It’s de­light­fully mad­den­ing mak­ing that hap­pen — con­struct­ing and de­con­struct­ing, fig­ur­ing out what’s re­vealed when.”

One chal­lenge was cre­at­ing characters who were real, us­ing the ac­tual tes­ti­mony from the in­quest. Yet some of the best lines in the show come di­rectly from 80-year-old court tran­scripts, Payne says.

Although there are no gay characters, there are “women in fab­u­lous 1930s evening gowns drink­ing moon­shine with young guys in swim­suits un­til some­body gets shot,” says the play­wright.

Although there is some hu­mor in the new ‘Swell Party’ Jan.10 - 27 at Ge­or­gia En­sem­ble The­atre Roswell Cul­tural Arts Cen­ter 950 For­rest St., Roswell, GA 30075 www.get.org “Bloody Bloody An­drew Jack­son” Jan.10 – Feb. 27 at Ac­tor’s Ex­press 887 W. Marietta St., At­lanta, GA 30318 www.ac­tor­sex­press.com play, “Swell Party” has some somber mo­ments.

“Ul­ti­mately we’re telling the story of a beau­ti­ful young man whose life ended be­fore it had a chance to be­gin,” says Payne. “That’s just un­bear­ably sad. Smith died at the same age I was first di­ag­nosed with can­cer — I hadn’t made that con­nec­tion un­til just now. The most up­set­ting thing about fac­ing death at that age was think­ing all the things I still wanted to do.”

An­drew Jack­son gets ‘Bloody’

An­other show to look for­ward to at the be­gin­ning of the year is “Bloody Bloody An­drew Jack­son” at Ac­tor’s Ex­press.

Di­rected by openly gay Fred­die Ash­ley, it’s a mu­si­cal that en­vi­sions the sev­enth pres­i­dent as a rocker, one who can jam out and take care of of­fi­cial du­ties at the same time.

The the­ater tends to do mu­si­cals quite well; last sea­son’s “Spring Awak­en­ing” was named Best Mu­si­cal of the sea­son at the re­cent Suzi Awards.

The cast of ‘Swell Party’ in­cludes (back row) Scott DePoy, Tess Malis Kin­caid, Tony Larkin, We­ston Man­ders, Sue­hyla El-At­tar, as well as (front row) Kate Dona­dio and Jo Howarth. (Photo by R. Todd Flee­man)

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