Photo by Ken Howard/SCRRichard Greenberg's latest play, The Violet Hour, takes its title from that time of the day around twilight, that "wonderful New York hour when the evening's about to reward you for the day," as one character explains. That observation—and Greenberg's densely written examination of personal history and the inconstant nature of memory—are reminiscent of that dense German übermind, Georg W.F. Hegel, who, in one of his few lucid moments, wrote that the owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.
Hegel meant, formulaically, that wisdom equals events plus time plus reflection. In The Violet Hour, characters want answers, clarity and meaning long before history occurs. They are denied—except for John Pace Seavering, a fledgling book publisher rebelling against his aristocratic father.
Seavering's curse is that everyone knows he's fated to follow his father's impressive footsteps; Masters of the Universe cannot shirk their birthrights. Still, Seavering is a man of ideals: he wants to print books that matter. But he's paralyzed. It's 1919, and America hovers between the wake of the Great War and the headiness of the Roaring '20s. Everything seems possible, but—tempered by the horrors of the war to end all wars—everything possible seems meaningless.
Seavering wants desperately to make the right choice. Determined to forge his future without his father's assistance, he has scraped together just enough money to publish one book. But which book? The rambling catastrophe of words by his best friend, the brilliant but disorganized Denis? Or the wholly unpretentious, no-bullshit autobiography of his lover, a marginally popular nightclub singer and living embodiment of the underclass?
Seavering is torn by the decision because so much—his sex life, his friend's sex life, his lover's sex life, along with marriage, careers and fame—hinges on the decision. He yearns to know the future, and through the absurd introduction of a machine from the end of the 20th Century, he does. Yet even armed with foresight, he still realizes, in poignant fashion, that's he's unable to change anything. Shit, it turns out, really does happen, and no one can change that. The only certainty is that years after the fact, a legion of scholars, academics and journalists will attempt to put their spin on everything long after it goes down, will attempt to impose meaning on chaos. In this case, history isn't written by the victors; it's written by everyone with an agenda.
That's engaging stuff, but there isn't enough of it because Greenberg is simply too talented.
Greenberg has always been a smart writer, the sharpest kid on the playwright block. He owns all the $10 words, gets an A on the vocab quizzes and can probably knock off the New York Times crossword in 10 minutes while sitting on the can. He's a superhuman talent and weird smart. But as with his last few plays that have received SCR productions (Everett Beekin, The Dazzle) Greenberg's monstrous writing talent often gets in the way of his plays.
The Violet Hour wants very badly to say something meaningful about time, about the struggle for power in human relationships, about the fallibility of human memory—and, at last count, about 1,815 other very provocative topics. But all of that is undelivered in impressive fashion.
And that's why this play is ultimately unsatisfying. You want Greenberg's play to register on every level because, well, it should. No major (i.e. successful) American playwright writes as well, as intelligently or prolifically as Greenberg. But while it can be a joy to listen to his impossibly articulate characters spout off on everything from the myriad nicknames for a dog named Sir Lancelot to the increasing feminization of American society, it often seems Greenberg is so in love with writing—and his characters so in love with their words—that his love obscures everything else.
That's not to imply that this production is a wreck. From the outrageously steeped rake of the stage (you could play skeeball on this configuration) to longtime Greenberg collaborator Evan Yionoulis' confident direction, the production—as a new production on a brand-new multimillion-dollar stage—works on most levels. And Hamish Linklater's portrayal of Seavering is as multifaceted and constantly evolving a performance as you can ever hope to see. This man truly contains multitudes.
As does The Violet Hour.You just wish that the play contained fewer multitudes, that it was more focused and less wordy. Indeed, it's not that Greenberg writes too intelligently; we don't need playwrights who mute their muse. If theater has any relevance in this visually dominated age, it's in the power of language and all the emotion, power, resonance and urgency that only words delivered by real, breathing human beings can deliver. But you do wish that Greenberg would introduce at least one of his fingers to the delete key.
THE VIOLET HOUR AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 24. $19-$54.