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Posted: 3:45 p.m. Monday, Jan. 7, 2013

Four promising plays for cold winter days

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Four promising plays for cold winter days photo
Suehyla El-Attar as Libby Holman in Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “Swell Party,” a world premiere by Atlanta playwright Topher Payne. Credit: Stephanie Slusser.
Four promising plays for cold winter days photo
Maxim Gukhman as Andrew Jackson and Galen Crawley as Rachel Jackson in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Actor’s Express. Credit: BreeAnne Clowdus.

By Wendell Brock

No matter the season, Atlanta theater is in a constant state of agitation, excitement and renewal. Every January, a wave of fresh productions makes the new year as vibrant as fall. Right now, the city is welcoming a rock musical about Andrew Jackson; a play about the scandalous real-life marriage of a stage siren and the heir to a North Carolina tobacco fortune; and a dark comedy from Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire, among other productions. Here, then, is our hot list of four winter shows to watch.

“Swell Party”

Topher Payne writes his plays on a trusty, old-fashioned school desk that he calls Oscar. He figured Oscar could use a lift, so he hired a refinishing company to give it a makeover, which he unveiled just as he was putting final touches on “Swell Party.” His second world premiere for Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre (the first was 2011’s “Tokens of Affection”), “Swell Party” is based on a tabloid tragedy that roiled North Carolina in the 1930s. The youngest son of tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds turns up dead at the family estate, leaving his wife, Broadway star Libby Holman, pregnant with their first child and a prime suspect.”

This play’s got more liquor, money and betrayal than a season of ‘Real Housewives,’ ” says Payne, an artist known for his campy quips and drag turns. But don’t expect “Swell Party” — starring actor Suehyla El-Attar as Holman — to be a non-stop caper comedy. “I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that a young man’s life ends in the play,” Payne says. “All hi-jinks aside, this family has experienced a significant loss.”

Payne doesn’t try to rehash the facts of the murky case.

“If you treat them as historical figures, they never resonate as human beings,” Payne says. “I had to let go of that. Some stuff is meant to be saved for the lobby display. So I took all the letters, court transcripts and newspaper accounts, developed a point of view and then settled into the job Georgia Ensemble actually hired me to do — tell a story about funny people in extreme circumstances.”

Meanwhile, he hopes his desk is ready for a workout.

“I’ve got three more theatres waiting for scripts,” Payne cracks. “So I’m gonna be spending a lot of time looking at that desktop this year.”

“Swell Party” runs through Jan. 27 at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. 770-641-1260; www.get.org

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ subversive musical imagines the seventh president of the United States as a sneering rock star, replete with erotic swagger, groupies and a band.

“‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’ is an irreverent and smart portrayal of Andrew Jackson basically slapping the status quo of 1820s America in the face,” says Kevin Becerra, the 23-year-old dramaturg for the Actor’s Express production. “The man was a total lunatic, and yet he managed to double the size of the country and introduce populism to the American government. The musical manages to discuss these heady historical topics in a casing of tight jeans and pop culture references.”

Directed by Freddie Ashley and starring Maxim Gukhman as Jackson, the Wild West smash-up, which landed on Broadway in 2010, has been celebrated as a reflection of the splintered state of American politics today.

“The show is political in the sense that it tries to make sense of a political figure from our history,” Ashley says. “And it forces the audience to confront the reality that the expansion of our country was built on a genocide. Jackson felt that Native Americans had to go.

Referencing country, folk, emo and period music, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” follows no formulas and lives in what Becerra describes as “the same world as ‘The Colbert Report,’ ‘The Daily Show’ and The Onion.” Sign us up.

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through Feb 17 at Actor’s Express. 404-607-7469; www.actors-express.com

“Good People”

The playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has written stories about the meaning of age and wisdom (“Kimberly Akimbo”) and the paralysis of loss (“Rabbit Hole”). His 2011 play “Good People” functions as an investigation of class, raising questions that Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth finds irresistible.

“So much of what’s juicy – for good and for ill – in our country right now is about the friction of class in a system that supposedly allows us to change our station for the better,” says Booth, who directs. “David’s play wrestles that beast to the ground in a way that’s deeply, darkly funny.”

The story of Margie (played on Broadway by Frances McDormand and at the Alliance by Kate Buddeke) and Mike (Thomas Vincent Kelly) is a study of those who manage to get out of their South Boston neighborhood, and those who don’t. “It’s the question of what still connects them that provides the big water-cooler reveal that makes the play such a stunner,” Booth says.

Another plus: Atlanta favorite Brenda Bynum come out of retirement, once again, to play Margie’s crotchety old landlady, Dottie.

“Good People runs Jan. 16-Feb. 10 at Alliance Theatre. 404-733-5000; www.alliancetheatre.org

“Fly”

During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen integrated the armed forces and helped defeat Hitler.

“Superheroes don’t inspire me, but ordinary human beings who take on extraordinary challenges do,” says Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key of the play by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan. The airmen “successfully fight two enemies,” the Outfit’s executive artistic director says, “racism on the ground and Nazis in the air.”

Key was especially taken by the show’s use of tap-dancing.

“The excitement of liftoff and flying is created by a narrative tap dancer,” Key explains. “He gives a percussive emotional power to the story that is sensational.”

To ensure that this complicated mix of dancing and dialogue makes a smooth landing, Key needed a director with a careful understanding of choreographic mapping, so he called on Atlanta choreographer Patdro Harris.

Key says the play’s lessons on race should be an example for the divisiveness of the present day.

“When political debate disintegrates into a useless hateful shouting match, our ability to solve problems is lost,” Key says. “This is a time to remember what it means to stand united.”

“Fly” runs Jan. 30-Feb. 24 at Theatrical Outfit. 1-877-725-8849; www.theatricaloutfit.org

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