The Violet Hour by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Barry Edelstein.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...no spirit of ruin..."
Austin Lysy and Opal Alladin as John and Jessie; photo: Kevin Sprague
When you combine science fiction with romance, gloss it over with a smattering of history and toss in the slightest degree of homosexuality looming in the immediate distance you - sort of - have Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour, now on stage at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. This five character play about a young publisher struggling to decide between two books, both written by people with whom he is intimate, is a quirky, sometimes delicious, often bizarre, eventually fascinating and ultimately unrewarding experience. One book is a memoir by an older woman with whom he is having an affair. The other is by a college chum whose need to publish is strengthened by his love for an heiress who cannot go to her powerful father with a "genius" who is mad and also unrecognized. Both authors have strong ties to the young publisher; both have their methods of persuasion and both of them include a sexual element that may or may not be appealing to this man.
Greenberg, the author of the multi-award winning play "Take me Out" and the recently revived "Three Days of Rain" is an oddity in the playwrighting game. "Three Days of Rain", for example, presented its generational story backwards, letting the audience guess at the antecedents of its principle relationships. This play jumps in the other direction when a machine is delivered to the publisher’s office one day which begins to print out books written more than half a century later, all of them about the people with whom he is involved at that very moment. It’s a fascinating gimmick, coming at the very end of the first act and turning Act Two into a weirdly frenetic tour-de-force for all five players.
John Pace Seavering, the upper-class gent turned fledgling publisher, is played by Austin Lysy. His easy, handsome looks are quickly overcome by his earnestness in the role. His warmth, his convictions, his breezy manner with his subordinate are all a part of the character’s charm and Lysy gets them right at every turn. When he begins to make love to his mistress his ardor is all that matters to him as Lysy plays him. When he is resolute in not being seduced by a wealthy young woman, Lysy is more masculine than at any other moment in the play. Lysy manages to move easily among this man’s various sides and this naturalness in his playing brings John vividly to life.
Opal Alladin plays John’s mistress, a black singer fourteen years his elder, named Jessie Brewster. She is worldly and controlling and she does a fine job with John. As Alladin portrays her she is also sensual and seductive, adult yet still childlike when confronted about her past and her habits. Her breakdown in act two is fabulous theater and Alladin handles every nuance with panache.
Rosamund Plinth, the heiress, is played by Heidi Armbruster. Her character is much quirkier than Jessie. She is moody, potentially suicidal, yet strong enough to resist the temptations that take people to that extreme. Armbruster gives this character a manly stride, a feisty side and a peculiar sensuality that works well in the second act. She is always driving her character’s bus, it seems, and never sitting in the back as a passenger pulled along by the writing. She forges her character with a strong sense of steel.
Brian Avers is Denny, Denis McCleary, a fellow graduate of John’s college and an avid fan. He is also the author of the other book under consideration. This character’s belief in self is pushed to the outer limits by Avers who climbs furniture, mounts walls, and windows, kisses his best friend with a passion that is so over-the-top that sexual assumptions are evident and expressed. Avers plays with a true sense of self, making Denny into a seductive child with aspirations.
The fifth wheel in this uncovered wagon of a play is simply called Gidger. Not a first name, or a last name, just Gidger. He is another college chum, working as an assistant to John, although what he actually does is never clear. What is clear in the performance by Nat DeWolf is that Gidger is the most closeted homosexual in downtown New York. As fey as possible is how DeWolf portrays this man. When, in the second act, it becomes clear that the word "gay" has been transformed at a future time into something other than "festive in the face of reality" Gidger is unable to stop using the word in its earlier context. Each time he expresses the word it takes on its later connotations because even though the play is set in 1919, Gidger is a man of the future, even if he has been eliminated from the history books except as a vague reference in terms of a "woman assistant."
DeWolf is hilarious in this characterization. The title could almost be "Gidger Gets a Ticket," as so much focus has been turned onto this character. Off stage a good deal of the time, each of DeWolf’s entrances is a startling joy.
Barry Edelstein has seemingly brought this play to life, rather than just directing it. Dealing with a "miracle" machine as it does, he has managed to make the reactive life of John and Gidger in the office into something other than philosophical framework for an argument about fate and history and truth. These two men take on a life-force. They become the most extraordinary couple dealing with the present as they begin to understand the future. Edelstein has allowed all five characters, in fact, to live the moments to follow their paths and their revised paths as John edits them into what he hopes is a better understanding of themselves. The second miracle of the play Edelstein almost lets go without using the elements of theatrical magic that could salvage the turn-around.
All of this takes place on a set, that would seem to be located in the narrow end of New York City’s Flatiron Building, designed by Wilson Chin. Jessica Ford has provided perfectly wonderful costumes and Chris Lee has almost made the lighting work perfectly for the two miracles. He’s got the first one nailed, but the second one could bump us back to reality with a real jolt instead of a concept mystery.
I am always a great believer in the "happy ending" and this play offers one, but in this case I don’t think it’s the right ending and I honestly believe that this has, and will, keep this play from ever becoming one of the great ones. It’s a good play and a good evening of entertainment even if it is a bit too talky at times. Perhaps there is no better way to finish off this show, but I wish there was an alternative ending from which to choose. I think I’d go another way.
Heidi Armbruster and Brian Avers as Rosamund and Denny; photo: Kevin Sprague
Nat DeWolf as Gidger with Austin Lysy; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Violet Hour plays on the mainstage of Barrington Stage Company at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield through August 2. Tickets are $36-$56. There is a pay-what-you-can performance on July 25 for people 35 and under. For more information or to book tickets call 413-236-8888 or visit their website at www.barringtonstageco.org