Richard Greenberg’s “The Violet Hour” was probably the ideal choice to inaugurate Manhattan Theater Club’s new Broadway home at the Biltmore Theater. The latest play from the author of “Take Me Out” is a chamber piece that muses on the elusive intersections between the past, the present and the future, so there’s a pleasing serendipity in seeing it staged at the intimate, impeccably restored Biltmore. Just a few years ago, the theater was an empty shell with a distinguished past and a questionable future. Now the smell of paint and new upholstery fills the lobby, fresh gilt gleams from the proscenium. The bustle of activity on a recently gloomy stretch of 47th Street provides happy testament to the theater’s admirable ability to shape its artistic future by resurrecting its past.
But one of the poignant themes of Greenberg’s play is destiny’s tendency to play funny tricks, and this truth is borne out, unhappily, by what’s on the Biltmore stage. The sad news is that this ideal play for the occasion has not arrived in an ideal production — probably through no fault of the artists involved.
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As has been widely reported, the two female roles (in a play of just five characters) are not being played by the women originally cast. Laura Benanti left during rehearsals due to “artistic differences,” and an ailing Jasmine Guy was replaced by her understudy, Robin Miles, during previews. Such disruptions inevitably take a toll on the smooth development of a production.
Miles and Benanti’s replacement, Dagmara Dominczyk, are perfectly adequate, and their co-stars, Scott Foley, Mario Cantone and the inestimable Robert Sean Leonard, are likewise talented performers giving polished and appealing performances. But the production has a mottled, pieced-together quality that is particularly damaging to this delicate, complex play, which may just be Greenberg’s finest.
Although it is set in the past, “The Violet Hour” has an unmistakably contemporary sensibility. There is much comedy, but the overriding tone is melancholy. The style is naturalistic, with a flagrantly fantastic twist. And Greenberg’s dialogue is alternately earthbound and bewitchingly rhapsodic.
Director Evan Yionoulis, who staged the play’s well-received world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory in California, has not been able to blend this challenging tapestry of textures together to create an artful, emotionally resonant whole. The snappy comedy steps on the feet of the philosophical musings, and the lyrical flights proves daunting to some of the performers, who are not uniformly able to discover in Greenberg’s intricate language the emotional core of their characters. Overall, it’s as if a lovely poem has been translated deflatingly into prose.
A haunting tale of a man given a chance to foresee the consequences of his actions, “The Violet Hour” might almost be titled “It’s Not Such a Wonderful Life.” Greenberg has concocted an ingenious time-travel story with a novel twist: Instead of characters being magically transported to the past or future, the future itself is transported to the past here, through a sort of mystical fax machine that arrives one day at the office of budding publisher John Pace Seavering (Leonard).
Seavering has just set up shop in somewhat dingy digs in Manhattan. The year is 1919, and this recent Princeton grad hopes to become the conduit for voices of the Lost Generation. He’s filled with a sense of immense possibility — the result of his youth, his comfortable upbringing and the aftermath of the Great War. Asked how he comes by his enthusiasm, he says, “I think it’s because the century’s still so young … and all the worst things have already happened in it.”
But Seavering is already becoming aware of the limits that life might place on ambition. He only has enough money to publish one book, and he is faced with two strong contenders — both of which come with knotty personal strings attached. His college pal Denis McCleary (Foley) has written a precocious magnum opus that Seavering warmly admires. When Denis arrives to lobby for it, he reveals that more than just a literary debut is at stake: He has fallen passionately in love with an heiress, Rosamund Plinth (Dominczyk), who will be forced to marry a more suitable suitor if McCleary can’t prove he’s got promise.
On the other hand, Seavering is equally enamored of the autobiography of a fashionable black singer, Jessie Brewster (Miles). And his loyalty to her is possibly even stronger than his affection for Denis — they’re having a tempestuous affair.
An idealist who believes he’s destined for great things, Seavering is hesitant to make a choice: He’s paralyzed by his belief that the future is his to shape — “and I don’t want to mess that up!,” he cries.
Indeed, all the characters in the play evince a touching belief in the profound importance of the present moment — Denny delivers a rhapsodic description of what he calls the “violet hour,” the time when “the evening’s about to reward you for the day.” Greenberg has a tender regard for his characters’ impassioned sense that beauty and meaning and happiness are immanent in the world and must be grasped before they can escape. Rosamund, for example, is convinced that she and Denny “are the only happiness that will ever be possible to each other.”
Those words take on an acute poignance in the play’s increasingly somber second act. While Seavering has been wrestling with his decision, his assistant Gidger (Cantone) has been confronting his own demon, namely the peculiar machine, provenance unknown, that has arrived at the office and begun spewing out piles of printed paper. The first act closes with Gidger and Seavering’s startled discovery that these are dispatches — pages of books — written many years in the future.
As act two opens, Gidger and Seavering sit amid neat stacks of paper, absorbing the news of the century to come. Greenberg exploits the rich comic possibilities in this scenario primarily through the character of Gidger, a flamboyant, histrionic fellow — played to the ahistorical hilt, and then some, by Cantone — who is steamed to discover that one of his favorite words, “gay,” will acquire a new, exclusive meaning in the years to come. (He’s also outraged that none of the books detailing the respectable life of prominent publisher John Pace Seavering make reference to him.)
But Seavering is unnerved by more upsetting revelations: He learns that his decision to publish Denis’ book did not lead to the expected marital bliss, and that Jessie has been harboring secrets that will one day destroy her. How to proceed in the light of this burdensome knowledge? Can the future be undone?
Marvelous writing abounds here. Greenberg often has displayed an irksome tendency to bestow his own wit and erudition on his characters indiscriminately, lending them the two-dimensional quality of smart mouthpieces. Here he largely tames that flaw, finding voices for his characters that, while still eloquent, are specific to their emotional predicaments (the one exception might be Jessie, whose wry, archly sophisticated voice doesn’t always ring true). The play is continually amusing, but also deeply touching in his juxtaposition of the disillusion forced upon Seavering with the hopefulness of his compatriots.
And yet “The Violet Hour,” as staged here, never reaches the heights you keep hoping for. Leonard is dependably fine, as always, communicating with economical grace the anguish in Seavering’s dilemma. And the other actors all have fine moments, too. But the play needs a little bit of magic — a Proustian daydream poised halfway between reality and fantasy, it probably would require a production of immense sensitivity to be entirely persuasive.
Yionoulis’ production, while attractive, may be too earthbound — the set by Christopher Barreca could use less specificity, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes are perhaps too period-perfect, particularly for the female characters. Even the lighting by Donald Holder, gorgeous as it is, is perhaps too generous in its literal-minded applications of the title color. These are small matters, of course, but they contribute to the general sense that a painting best suited to watercolors has been rendered in oils: You can admire the beauty of the composition, but it leaves you unmoved.