Center Stage: Swell time at Theatre Conspiracy production
Yes, indeed, a swell time was had by one and all attending Bill Taylor’s Theatre Conspiracy opening play titled “Swell Party” by playwright Topher Payne (who is new to me).
The play is based on real people, in a true-to-life “parlor game type of whodunit.” There was a truly remarkable set of kooky characters in this brilliantly directed play (talented Karen Goldberg); “Swell Party” was a beautifully mounted production (set and lighting/Bill Taylor), performed by an excellent cast of gifted actors.
The plot unfolds when Smith Reynolds, a playboy and sometime aviator and orphaned heir to the Reynolds tobacco empire, returns to the family estate “Reynolda” with his recently married and controversial wife, the successful Broadway actress/torch singer/bisexual, 27-year-old Libby Holman.
Smith Reynolds was smitten the moment he caught her act and spent a fortune following Libby around the world, till he won her. Smith was the youngest son of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds; this 20-year-old playboy was the real-life Roaring Twenties manifestation of a character drawn straight from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Smith Reynolds had complete disinterest in the family business, along with an inexhaustible allowance and a volatile temper. His big claim to fame was learning to fly the plane he owned, as he stalked Libby around the world with it, till he wore the 27 year old down. Their marriage was “a clash of wills from the get-go,” especially with the “Southern old guard” Reynolds family. Libby brings along a flamboyant theatrical female buddy, a flamboyant vamp, Broadway actress and sometime director, Blanche Yurka.
The action takes place during and after the family’s annual alcohol-fueled July 4th holiday party held at Reynolda. The storyline is that Libby told her husband she was pregnant: after that bit of news, there was reportedly a tense confrontation. Here, stories differ, but there was a gunshot and Smith turns up dead. After the gun incident there is an investigation by the local authorities, but fearing a scandal over the son and heir’s activities, the intensely secretive Reynolds family persuades the local authorities to drop the charges and the death is ruled a suicide.
The “Swell Party” plotline centers around this investigation and the end result; death by suicide.
What absolutely blew me away in watching this play was Topher Payne’s carefully crafted dialogue and his hysterically funny and clever character development. The characters in this play during the first act are so much bigger than life and so over the top that I was convinced I wasn’t watching any sort of real-life drama and possible murder investigation, but some kind of loony, whodunit farce.
But after the second act, I realized that these outrageous characters and situations were actual fact and not fanciful fiction; these somewhat zany characters were real people. In other words, I had been admittedly totally bamboozled by Act 1, then and then completely convinced and enchanted by Act 2.
That, my friend, is not only great writing by Mr. Payne, with spot on direction by Karen Goldberg, but also superlative acting by the entire cast. Tera Nicole Miller as the sweet-as-sugar southern belle/secretary babe Collier Vaught, Kim Crow played the hard-as-nails Aunt Kate Reynolds to absolute perfection; Thomas Marsh made much of the role of Ab Walker, boyhood buddy and companion to heir Smith Reynolds.
Jim Yarnes nailed investigating detective Erie McMichael. Katherine Pankow was a spot-on Libby Holman Reynolds — a vamp, a camp and a bit of a tramp. Jordan Wilson not only charmed, he intrigued as well as entertained us with his take on tobacco heir Smith Reynolds.
Last but never least, Lauren Drexler practically chewed the scenery in her over-the-top portrayal of Blanche Yurka, an opera singer turned Broadway/motion picture actress who was a combination of Theda Bara, Gloria Swanson, and the whole nine yards of those soul-eyed vamps who ruled the “silents” in their heyday.
Unfortunately, this show will have closed on Dec. 13, but a swell time was had by all attending “Swell Party.”
That having been said, don’t miss the next offering at the Theatre Conspiracy, which sounds like fun: “The Bible: The Complete Word of God” (abridged) opening Jan. 3, 8, 9,10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 18 at 2 p.m.