Richard Greenberg, whose career is peaking commercially with the Broadway-bound “Take Me Out,” is dealing with some of his favorite themes in “The Violet Hour” — specifically the nature of time and destiny. And, as usual, he’s enormously clever, filling the work with wondrously witty wordplay. To its benefit “The Violet Hour” is also more fully accomplished, more structurally whole, than his other recent offerings at South Coast, “Everett Beekin” and “The Dazzle.” Sure, there remain plenty of loose threads in it: One can feel the second-act labor involved in holding together its somewhat heavy-handed conceit, and the supporting characters are never genuinely involving emotionally. But the play, as well as the sterling production directed by Evan Yionoulis, resonates significantly with a rich intelligence and antic, spirited, self-conscious humor.
“The Violet Hour” inaugurates South Coast Repertory’s new second space, an impressively intimate proscenium that reveals its advantages as soon as the curtain comes up on Christopher Barreca’s stunning perspective set, a grand, cluttered Manhattan office space that manages to brim with both a past and a future.
John Pace Seavering, the protagonist of Greenberg’s new play about newness, is a young budding publisher in 1919, a well-dressed, well-connected, sure-to-be-successful Princeton alum filled with unquenchable optimism and certain that the 20th Century has already seen its worst days. Played with just the right, likable note of youthful arrogance by Hamish Linklater, Seavering is on the verge of deciding what his first publication will be.
But the choice is not an easy one. On the one hand, there’s the convoluted tome by his best buddy Denis McCleary (Curtis Mark Williams ably doing the dashing young writer), three crates full of pretentiousness that has the advantage of being like nothing else and, based on its title, “The Violet Hour,” is very possibly brilliant. “After reading my book,” declares McCleary, “people won’t need to read anymore.”
Then there’s the memoir by Jessie Brewster (a strong Michelle Hurd), a black singer who details her inspirational rise from poverty to success in a “march of simple, declarative sentences” with the ring of truth.
Quality, of course, or even commerciality, is not Seavering’s only consideration. For McCleary, the publication will determine whether or not he can marry his newfound lover, Rosamund Plinth. McCleary has no money, but Plinth’s father, head of a meat fortune, will apparently be satisfied with a future. Rosamund (an amusingly flighty Kate Arrington) is quite the convincer, threatening to throw herself from a high-room at the Plaza if Seavering decides not to publish the book.That would probably be enough to determine the choice, except for the fact that Seavering is himself having an affair with the older Jessie.
As Seavering struggles with his choice, his assistant Gidger (Mario Cantone) consistently intrudes with news of this new machine that has mysteriously arrived and begun to spit out paper. It’s at the very end of actoneI that Seavering finally listens, realizing that if he wants to know what his decision will be, all he needs to do is read about it.
Seavering discovers that most of his friends will suffer tragic fates, although he himself is going to be successful enough to have biographies written on him. Unfortunately, those very biographies will misinterpret his life, even some of the events we’ve already witnessed.
Greenberg has great fun with the cultural shifts that mark the century’s changes, and Gidger becomes the primary conveyor of the humor. Cantone (Anthony on “Sex and the City”) delivers a juicy comic performance, assisted by the playwright’s tangential tirades into the nature of fame, obscurity and dogs. The best of all is a discussion of the word “gay,” which, of course, changes meanings later in the century, a fact that sends Gidger into a rant about the need for gaiety. He defines it as an essential life tool, “to understand the future is bleakness deferred and go on.”
Such Beckettian sentiment permeates “The Violet Hour,” which engages in a battle not to become too pessimistic and heavy in its determinism; “It’s compelling reading,” says Gidger about the future history, “but I’m not enjoying myself.” Greenberg pursues a lot of self-conscious comparisons to the theater, in particular contemplating suspense versus predictability. In fact, the play begins and ends with a discussion of the theater, which is as much a metaphor for the plot as the plot is a metaphor for the theater.
The play is perhaps weaker in its grand scheme than in its smaller witticisms, but unlike other Greenberg works, here the structure and wordplay are intricately connected. There’s really no end to this playwright’s wit.
The cast is excellent, and all of them seem to have been cast to wear Candice Cain’s period costumes with a degree of authenticity. Donald Holder’s lighting is of particular note for the way it turns from brightness to sepia to mark how the new becomes old with rapidity. And there’s barely a weak link in Evan Yionoulis’ staging, which is so fast-paced that the lines sometimes fly by before they can be registered. That’s fine, since there’s always another good one coming up.