Scripter Richard Greenberg’s sci-fi-infused sojourn among the lives of five post-WWI Manhattanites has one glaring flaw that North Hollywood-based Theater Tribe manages to turn into a virtue. An unseen machine that spouts revelations from the future, thereby diminishing the abilities of the characters to control their own lives, drives the central plot of “The Violet Hour.” Helmer Stuart Rogers astutely plunges his capable ensemble through every ponderous and illogical twist and turn of Greenberg’s text, turning imperfect drama into highly accessible theater.
Set in 1919, the action centers on the tribulations of neophyte publisher John Pace Seavering (Thomas Burr), whose slim startup finances will allow him to publish just one initial book. Unfortunately, his lover, African-American chanteuse Jessie Brewster (Angelle Brooks), is intensely petitioning him to publish her memoir, while his best friend, Denis McCleary (Jeff Kerr McGivney), wants him to choose his weighty tome. Insinuating themselves into the dilemma are Seavering’s high-strung assistant Gidger (Kyle Colerider-Krugh) and McCleary’s emotionally unstable debutante fiancee, Rosamund Plinth (Elizabeth O’Brick).
Allowing these five agenda-driven personalities to have at each other based simply on the initial attributes the scripter endowed upon them would have made for intriguing drama. The seed of such a scenario is planted when Seavering admits he has no creative talent in his own right but knows how to spot and nurture it in others.
Instead, Greenberg deluges Seavering and company with reams of time machine-disgorged information that lays out everyone’s future with deadening but recognizable detail. It soon becomes obvious that Jesse is standing in for expatriate American singer-dancer Josephine Baker and the Denis/Rosamund duo are subbing for the tragic icons of Roaring ’20s literature, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Burr offers a captivating portrayal of the callow Seavering, who is at first entrapped by and but subsequently transcends the volumes of facts heaped upon him. His struggle to obtain maturity is highlighted by his endearingly awkward courtship of Jessie. Brooks is a sensual delight as the life-burdened singer who treats the young publisher as a romantic boy toy yet projects her deep need to have Seavering validate her life.
McGivney and O’Brick are perfectly paired as impractical lovers who manically believe the only solution to their lives is for Seavering to publish McCleary’s book. McGivney’s McCleary projects such a raging, colorful irreverence against the status quo, he makes plausible that his book might have something to say. O’Brick offers a tantalizing glimpse into the darkness of a haunted soul, valiantly attempting to push away the madness that would eventually overtake her.
In a tour de force portrayal of an insignificant being fighting for recognition, Colerider-Krugh’s ragingly offended Gidger chews up almost every inch of Theater Tribe’s miniscule stage, including the furniture.
Given the limitations of space, the designs of Douglas Lowry (sets), Susanne Klein (costumes), Luke Moyer (lighting) and Thadeus Frazier-Reed (sound) are uniformly excellent.