Theatre Out Offers Big Words In Small Spaces
Time is not generous to most of the characters in Richard Greenberg's 2003 play, The Violet Hour. Though set in April 1919, on one afternoon in the cramped Manhattan offices of a fledgling book publisher, by the end of the play, the audience knows a great deal about what will happen to—or at least be written about—the five characters decades in the future.
How that information is revealed is the twist this play turns upon, so it'd be criminal to reveal it. Suffice it to say, its introduction and implementation cast more than a little shadow of The Twilight Zone on The Violet Hour. Yet, this thoroughly unexplained device isn't really what the play is about. Greenberg, a favored son of South Coast Repertory for the past 20 years, as well as one of the smartest, most lyrical and contemplative of all contemporary playwrights, leans far more toward rich, florid language than boob-tube platitudes. His plays are awash in literary metaphor and finely toned language; you could absolutely see him as a ranking member of the Algonquin Round Table. But a bit more boob tube in his work could make the less-sharpened tools in the audience shed not feel they need an encyclopedia of literary terms to understand everything that's talked about onstage.
That's borne out by this production of The Violet Hour at Theatre Out. It's an ambitious choice for any small company. For some reason, plays populated by remarkably smart people saying remarkably smart things written by remarkably smart playwrights seem natural on big stages, where the size and scope of the space allow the breath and heft of the words a fitting launch pad. But in a small space, without the physical dimension to lend a trace of gravitas to the proceedings, plays such as The Violet Hour often fall flat. Small spaces actually imbue a play with assets: They're more immediate and personal. But the theatricality of a venue can also imbue words with far more power: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech belongs on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not in his bedroom.
It's not that this production doesn't do its best. Director Frankie Marrone understands the rapidly oscillating time-and-genre bending, and the five-person cast is usually up to Greenberg's verbal chess-play. But after the 10th reference to classical Latin and line after line such as "She has a tiered laugh. What, lachrymose? No, leveled," things meant to illuminate the mind tend to conjure visions of naptime.
We find ourselves in the cramped office of aspiring literary publisher John Pace Seavering. Though a generation is wrestling with the traumatic fall-out of the first mass conflagration of the 20th century, the Great War, there remains a sense that the worst atrocity is behind them and an unsketched future is theirs to mark. Seavering (a finely nuanced Ben Green), the son of a wealthy man, has taken just enough of his father's money to publish one book. But he must decide between choosing one penned by his longtime friend Denis (a desperately ambitious Chris Carver), a rambling catastrophe of a novel that is entirely new and different, or the gritty memoirs of Jessie Brewster (a believable Doshanna Bell, even if she's far too youthful-appearing), a marginally famous torch singer who also happens to be Seavering's illicit African-American lover.
Denis craves publishing both to legitimize his creative vision and to establish the literary credentials to marry Rosamund (an elusive Colleen Wilson), the daughter of a wealthy Chicago meatpacker. Jessie needs to be published because, nearly 20 years Seavering's senior, she knows the grains in her hourglass are dwindling. Seavering is fitfully torn between choosing art or commerce and friendship or fornication for his first published book, a decision made all the more difficult by the arrival of a mysterious machine, which his hapless assistant Gidger (a funny but occasionally too strident Tito Ortiz—not the Ultimate Fighting legend, alas) pleads with him to pay attention to, as the contents it emits reveal far more than which book may be more successful.
The Violet Hour is a memory play, with the memories being delivered from a time and place via a conduit that Greenberg doesn't bother to explain, nor is it vitally important. For the real question the play presents is what would you do if you knew the course of your life and of those closest to you, long before you made the choice to launch the chain of events? Ultimately, it's a question not of what the consequences of your life will be, but whether that life is more fully measured by what others say about it in posterity or through the actual living.
This review appeared in print as "Big Words In Small Spaces: Theatre Out tries its best to stage the linguistically florid The Violet Hour."
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