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The Violet Hour, at the Biltmore

The Violet Hour, Richard Greenberg's new play at MTC, is a sophisticated comedy with an old-fashioned setup. It is April 1, 1919. John Pace Seavering, Princeton grad, veteran of the Great War, and young man of means, has set himself up as a publisher. Starting out cautiously, he has decided that he can only publish one book. The trouble is, he's got two very fine candidates on his desk, and both authors are friends - very good friends. On the one hand, there are the memoirs of Jessie Brewster, a beautiful black singer who has achieved celebrity before white audiences, and on the other is David McCleary, a college chum who has produced a novel in three crates. The publication of one's book will necessarily disappoint the other's. While Seavering balances the importunings, first of David, then of Jessie, a strange machine is delivered to his office. David turns up with his would-be fiancée, meatpacking heiress Rosamund Plinth, and gets her to plead his case, which of course comes down to this: if David doesn't at least have a book that he can say he's publishing, Daddy will disinherit Rosamund. To this she adds the threat that she'll commit suicide if Seavering turns David's book down. She has just left the office when Seavering's assistant, Gidger, an addict of banked outrage and fountain of funny lines, sweeps in to announce that the machine has begun spewing pages from books published at the end of the century - the end of the present century. Curtain. 

When the curtain goes up again, the tables piled with bundles of manuscript that drove Gidger to despair at the beginning of the play have been pushed aside and replaced by stacks, some of them much taller than the actors, of newly printed pages from the infernal machine that's barely visible through the frosted glass panes of Seavering's decrepit loft office. Gidger and Seavering are reading pages in evident consternation. Then Gidger looks up and says, "Why do they call it the First World War?", and you know that you're in for a think piece. The direction in which Mr Greenberg intends to guide his experiment - what if you knew the future ahead of time? - is unclear for most of the second act, but made plain at the moment of climax. For what Seavering has really been given is not so much the future itself as the past that the future will have become by the 1990s. The same thing? Hardly. Your future, seen from a point in time beyond it, is history, the ad hoc collage of respectable rumor and documentary persistence - the accidental and error-ridden raw material of history. It is written, moreover, in language that is scarcely intelligible to Seavering and Gidger. Mr Greenberg wrests a great deal of fun from his characters' stupefied attempts to make sense of our academic jargon, but behind the laughter there is both a Jovial dismissal of all pettifogging lingo and a chilling reminder that our way of speaking is almost as mortal as we are. That the meanings of words shift over time is the innermost conundrum of historical enterprise, and from the vantage of Mr Greenberg's finale we can feel the lines of his play take on a complexity that they did not seem to have when the actors spoke them.

Perusing the machine's output, which Mr Greenberg wisely declines to attach to authors or titles known to the audience, Seavering is appalled to discover that the history of the people around him will be dark and disappointing. He alone is excepted: he will die a grand old man of publishing, or so they will say for a time, until other documents come to light. Gidger is excepted, too, but in altogether the opposite way: he leaves no history at all. Is that because he doesn't really exist? Of course not. History fails to take note of almost everybody, and the realization that oblivion will descend upon this lively little man is almost suffocating. Equally affecting is Jessie Brewster's collapse when Seavering confronts her with the scandal omitted from her memoirs. Seavering is saved, paradoxically, by the discovery that he cannot change the future by taking alternative steps, but this discovery itself is an illusion, for one can never be sure that the road not taken wouldn't lead to very end of the road that's chosen. 

It occurred to me as I was leaving the theatre that The Violet Hour will be more popular in Europe than it has been here. Practical Americans want to work out the ramifications of everything - that's why there are Star Trek conventions; see the wonderful film Galaxy Quest for the perfect send-up of our national metaphysics - while our cousins across the Atlantic are content to have interesting possibilities raised and, for an hour or so, tossed among minds. Several reviews of The Violet Hour have posited a science-fiction angle, but there is no science fiction in Mr Greenberg's comedy, any more than there is science fiction in Peter Pan. Mr Greenberg has a knack for asking what if questions that generate answers about actuality. 

The Violet Hour inaugurates Manhattan Theatre Club's expansion to the Biltmore Theatre, which has been restored to a splendor that it probably never had before. Certainly it was never so comfortable: the seating has been cut by a third. (There is no orchestra pit, or I'd be clamoring for the MTC to revive Mozart.) I very much liked the seedy but subtly expressionistic set, by Christopher Barreca, and Jane Greenwood's costumes; Donald Holder (lighting), Scott Myers (sound), and Gregory Meek (special effects - mainly paper spewage) all contributed to the production's high polish. Evan Yionoulis's direction, however, seemed slack to me, especially in the first act. Robert Sean Leonard, as Seavering, didn't have enough to say, and the embarrassed evasiveness that characterizes the bulk of his first-act role lacked variety. Whenever he had something to do, however, Mr Leonard was a strong presence. Robin Miles's Jessie had a majesty appropriate to the period, and Scott Foley's David burst with a likeably irrepressible egotism. As Rosamund, Dagmara Dominczyk altered between a lively pertness that I found very appealing and a big-eyed wonderment that seemed at times like bleating; in the character of Rosamund Plinth, perhaps, Mr Greenberg has flirted too seriously with the ghost of Zelda Fitzgerald. Mario Cantone's Gidger made sure that the show's élan never flagged. He had a perfectly wonderful moment in the second act, when, evidently infected by the strange reading that he's been doing, his tone mutates from prissy correctness to vulgar Brooklynese in no more time than it takes to stride across the stage. And his riff on the word 'gay' - it comes in two parts, like a pair of shoes - injects the first half of The Violet Hour with some of the comic thoughtfulness that makes the second an important piece of theatre. (December 2003)

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