Much of what occurs in Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour” turns on characters learning what happens in the future. But just as such knowledge doesn’t necessarily alter how the future will play out, mounting a first-rate production of a troubled play, as in this effort by Pittsfield, Mass.’ Barrington Stage Company, also has the feeling of the inevitable: The writing is, more or less, on the wall.
Yet this handsome, well-acted production is not a wasted effort: While this play may not be one of Greenberg’s best, his missteps are more interesting than many playwrights’ successes, as the Tony-winning scribe (“Take Me Out”) is one of the more lyrical playwrights writing today.
Production starts out promisingly, with spacious, layered and detailed set design by Wilson Chin, Jessica Ford’s smart period costumes that don’t distract, and subtle lighting by Chris Lee that evokes a muted world, as if in a fading photograph from the play’s time period, spring 1919.
More than capably helmed by stage vet Barry Edelstein, the performances are crisp and natural, and, with the exception of Brian Avers, who doesn’t bring the needed charisma to the role of Denis McCleary, there are no weak links in this five-hander.
Nat DeWolf as office assistant Gidger offers up as much comic relief as possible (think a young Nathan Lane), and Opal Alladin brings strength, dignity and a sexuality all her own to the role of African-American singer-writer Jessie Brewster.
Heidi Armbruster as Rosamund turns in a solid, subtle and entirely sympathetic performance, and Austin Lysy, who is onstage for nearly the entire play, couldn’t be asked to do much more as the bewildered, well-meaning publisher John Pace Seavering. After an early misstep (as Romeo at the Williamstown Theater Festival, where critics panned him), Lysy offers a star-launching perf if ever there was one.
So what’s missing? Heart and humanity, for starters. Set in the publishing world that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Maxwell Perkins must have known, the story follows a new publisher who must choose between two manuscripts: his new mistress’s memoir or his college pal Denny’s novel, so massive it would make Thomas Wolfe feel like a minimalist.
Complicating matters further, Denny wants to marry a meat heiress (“Is she beefy?” jokes Seavering), and the only way her father will allow the marriage is if Denny shows some promise — and a book contract would do the trick.
At the end of a long, uneventful first act, a time machine that spits out literature and history from the end of the 20th century is inexplicably introduced. When the second act opens, Seavering and Gidger have been gleaming major whiffs of what the rest of the century will have to offer (“What’s World War One?” asks Gidger, realizing at last that the recent “Great War” gets “demoted”).
But apart from Gidger proclaiming that “we are never again eating red meat,” the light, “Front Page” quality of the play disappears as Greenberg takes a page out of Dickens’ ghost of Christmas futures, proving once again that it’s never really a good idea to know in advance what happens next.