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 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.
Top photo: 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. (by R. Todd Fleeman)