"Swell Party" at Process Theatre, November 8-24, 2019
Topher Payne’s "Swell Party" creates a fictional framework for a 1932 death in the Reynolds Tobacco family, populated with its matriarch, its golden child, his new wife, and hangers-on. The storytelling is done through flashbacks as the family lawyer, Erle McMichael (DeWayne Morgan), interviews witnesses to determine the sequence of events leading up to the death. Autocratic matriarch Kate Reynolds (Betty Mitchell) runs the place, assisted by penniless ex-debutante Babe Collier Vaught (Bryn Striepe). Her 20-year-old grandson Smitty (Parker Fox Ciliax) has recently brought home his older wife, singer Libby Holman (Amanda Cucher), accompanied by her acting coach Blanche Yurka (Jennifer Lee). Smitty’s friend/keeper Ab Walker (Matthew Busch) attempts to contain some of the tensions arising from a Jewish New York celebrity entering Southern society.
The plot is engrossing, as each individual puts a unique spin on the incidents they were privy to on the night the death occurred. Most were inebriated, following a big party, and many assumptions are bandied about. A clear story and motive reveal themselves only at the end of the show. Was the death a suicide or a murder? Everyone but the lawyer seems to have had motive and opportunity, and the finger of suspicion points in all directions as the play proceeds.
The action takes place in the library of the Reynolda House, the family mansion. Barry N. West’s set design is elegant, with double pocket doors up center, up a couple of steps, with a door to the study up right, and with French doors to the outside stage left. Four in-wall bookcases, a fireplace with an art deco fire screen, and various pieces of artwork adorn the room. A sofa with intricate woodwork and a few chairs provide seating, with a desk and a console table providing surfaces for the many beverages consumed during the course of the play. The room would be even more elegant were the woodwork the rich brown of the bookcases rather than the red paint it is, which contrasts a bit too starkly with the hunter green beneath the chair rail.
Jane Kroessig’s costumes and George Deavours’ wigs give a feel for the period and for the various social stations of the characters. Cara Reid’s dialect coaching does the same, as do Chase Weaver’s props. Dan Bauman’s sound design does a good job of indicating the weather, although the pre-show recording is far too loud and some sound effects sound more like power tools than the sounds they’re supposed to be suggesting.
The big disappointment on the technical side is Elisabeth Cooper’s lighting design. The play depends upon clear distinctions between the flashback scenes and the scenes occurring during the lawyer’s investigation. Here, the distinctions are not very clear. Lights brighten a bit for flashback scenes, but it’s almost all general lighting, and with some characters from the investigation time period remaining onstage for flashbacks in which they don’t appear, it’s easy to miss the lighting transitions.
Acting is terrific across the board. Director Suehyla El-Attar, who played Libby Holman in the Georgia Ensemble premiere of the play, has cast thin Amanda Cucher in the role, which makes the script’s description of her as "zaftig" ring false, but that’s the only thing in Ms. Cucher’s performance to niggle about. Jennifer Lee doesn’t hold a candle to Tess Malis Kincaid, who played Blanche Yurka in the premiere, but she does well in the broad role, assuming an Eastern European accent that is at odds with her impressions of Americans. Bryn Striepe is a tightly-wound Babe, and Parker Fox Ciliax is all privileged kid bonhomie as Smitty. Betty Mitchell and DeWayne Morgan are evenly matched, making their scenes together sing and zing. Perhaps best of all is Matthew Busch, obsequiously ingratiating to his betters when remembering his place, but breaking out in a terrific scene late in the play.
Ms. El-Attar’s blocking makes good use of the space and incorporates Christen Orr’s limited fight choreography nicely. Her biggest achievement, though, is in inspiring her cast to create indelible characters that leap from the stage into life. Her direction keeps the show moving, and the production (aside from the lighting design) does credit to Mr. Payne’s engrossing, witty, moving script.