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The Battle rages on

Peachtree Battle strikes gold with its topical parody of Atlanta's uppercrust

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It's 20 minutes until 8 on a Saturday night at Peachtree Playhouse, and the theater is in pandemonium.

Throngs of patrons are practically fighting their way into this easily overlooked storefront space on (where else?) Peachtree Street. The line snakes down the block, past a sign proclaiming "Peachtree Battle is sold out."

Inside the theater, Peggy Lee is blaring, "You've Gotta Have Heart," as audience members struggle to find seats in the already cramped space. A tall, middle-aged woman in a fake fur edges her way down a crowded aisle, searching (in vain) for empty seats.

"Sorry, Bev, these three are taken after all," she bellows back to her friend, stepping on toes and nearly falling into the laps of a frightened-looking Cobb County couple. The crowd tonight tends toward the early-50s set, couples who look like they haven't set foot in Midtown since the Reagan administration.

A sign by the plate-glass door asserts: maximum occupancy, 212 persons. The theater actually only seats 121 -- but the bustle of this bunch makes it feel like maximum occupancy is at hand. Despite the cracker-box constraints, one perk of the theater's space is its not-so-secret passage to the Vortex next door. Another traffic jam forms there as obedient dates retrieve cocktails from the bar.

As show time nears and the big green curtain begins to flutter, the masters of tonight's madness call the crowd to order. Theater co-founders John Gibson and Anthony Morris tag-team the curtain speech, thanking everyone for coming and laying some ground rules for the evening.

"You can drink in the Vortex, you can drink in the hallway, you can drink in here. But once you take a glass past that threshold," Gibson says, pointing to the front door, "you are officially white trash."

It's a tiny taste of the humor to come; using a uniquely Southern wit, Peachtree Battle parodies a blueblood Buckhead clan and their obsessions with appearances. A tongue-in-cheek soap opera filled with backstabbing siblings, shocking revelations and a particularly diabolical mother, the show takes a broad and hilarious stab at the mores of Atlanta's upper class. High art, it ain't, but don't tell that to the masses battling for tickets.

The most astonishing thing about Peachtree Battle may be its sheer staying power. The show opened in September and its run has been extended repeatedly. Even blockbuster plays like Horizon Theatre's immensely popular I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change or Actor's Express' Rescue and Recovery barely broke the six-month mark. (Driving Miss Daisy, the longest-running show in the Alliance Theatre's history, ran for 18 months in 1988-90.)

But then again, Peachtree Playhouse isn't your typical Atlanta theater. Unlike other stages in town, this little upstart is able to dedicate its space to open-ended runs when a show hits big. From the start, the for-profit theater has relied on a dedicated fan base and positive word of mouth to keep its decidedly campy comedies sold out. And Gibson and Morris have a deliciously unpretentious view of what they want their theater to be.

"We make our work blatantly commercial," Morris says. "We don't have any artistic ideas of nuances of this or that. We're just in-your-face funny."

The strategy must be sound. Peachtree Battle has just been extended again -- now running through the end of June. Meanwhile Morris and Gibson are securing a new theater space on Peachtree Street, an additional location in which they can bring back their popular The Limousine Ride while keeping the Battle going at the current space. It's a risky experiment from a relatively young theater company, but one that Gibson and Morris are determined to make successful. Judging from their victories so far, it just might work.

Ask anyone involved in the business and you'll hear that 2002 has been a rough year for Atlanta theater. The recession and post-9-11 jitters have contributed to low attendance at playhouses around town, and insiders say that morale in general is low among the theater community. Peachtree Playhouse, though, seems impervious to the dark outlook, and its founders are only marginally aware of what's going on in the theater scene.

"Honestly, we've been so overwhelmed, we're not sure what other theaters are doing," Gibson says.

Gibson and Morris share the writing credits for Peachtree Battle and all the shows Peachtree Playhouse has mounted so far, a collaboration made all the more unusual by the revelation that they are partners outside the theater as well, together for eight years.

In person the writers make for an old-style comedy duo: Morris playing the quiet, often dry "straight" man to Gibson's zany chatterbox. They credit their different takes on comedy with being the key to their success.

"It works because our senses of humor are very different," Gibson says.

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