Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
“I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived...in a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue – of course, they are neither.”
– Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald in a letter to Scott, 1919
"There are no second acts in American lives"
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
I had a dream a few months ago about finding a book from the future. I remember very clearly that it contained a photograph of my nephew, who lives with us and is now 12, as an adult and stories of his adult life. He was very eager to read it, but I wouldn’t let him because, even in my dream world, I knew that that would be a very dangerous thing to do.
In Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour young Manhattan publisher John Pace Seavering (Austin Lysy) gets a chance to read his biography, and he takes it. Would you?
Mr. Seavering is very young – in his mid-twenties – a Princeton graduate just returned from fighting in World War I. He has taken just enough of his father’s considerable fortune to launch his publishing firm high in a Manhattan tower. All he has so far are an off-kilter office, an equally off-kilter assistant, Gidger (Nat DeWolf), and piles and piles of paper. The piles are unsolicited manuscripts sent to him be would-be authors, but Seavering only has enough capital to publish one book, and, on the April day in 1919 on which this play is set, he is being forced to decide between his old college friend, Denis McCleary’s (Brian Avers) mammoth tome of a novel The Violet Hour and his lover, negro songstress Jessie Brewster’s (Opal Alladin) autobiography.
There are very good reasons for him to publish, and not to publish, both books. Then a mysterious machine arrives and starts spewing forth even more paper, pages from books that appear to come from the end of the 20th century and which tell Seavering exactly what impact his decision will have on his own life, as well as the lives of Denny, Jessie, and Rosamund Plinth (Heidi Armbruster), the meat-packing heiress Denny loves.
Ultimately, reading about your own future includes learning how, when, and where you will die, as well as the future impact of the decisions you make. Being very young, and assuming he and his friends have much more future than past, Seavering tries to prevent catastrophes from occurring. At one point he even tells Jessie how and when she will die, to which her very logical response is to throw herself out the window. Smart girl, but then Jessie, at about 40, is the only character with more past than future. Besides, if she dies by jumping out of a skyscraper window today, how can she die of a drug overdose in eleven years time? It is her clear-sighted decision to manage her own destiny that proves the turning point in this play.
Playwright Richard Greenberg, a Tony Award winner for Take Me Out, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Three Days of Rain, writes with an almost Stoppardian love of language, which I enjoyed but which I noticed was too much for the pair of women seated behind me, who disappeared at intermission. The first act is long and wordy, with endless exposition for all five characters. By contrast the second act is fast-paced and heavy on surrealism. So The Violet Hour is a brilliant play, but not a perfect one. Luckily, in this production, Barry Edelstein’s firm-handed direction of an exceptionally talented and appealing cast make it work right up to its final moments, when Greenberg has slapped on an unexpected and not completely rewarding ending.
Greenberg has very obviously based all of his characters, except for Gidger, on Jazz Age icons. Seavering is a thinly disguised Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947), the publisher who “discovered” F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, Jessie is Josephine Baker (1906-1975), and Denny and Rosamund are obviously Scott (1896-1940) and Zelda (1900-1948) Fitzgerald. In fact, Armbruster has been coiffed and made up to look EXACTLY like the photo of Zelda Fitzgerald in 1919, the year before she married, that appears on Wikipedia.
Gidger is just the comic relief, and there are times when Greenberg launches him into Seavering’s office to break the tension in a manner that is obnoxious and merely denigrates the drama that has gone before. But DeWolf makes his character as likeable as possible. After all, he didn’t write the lines, he has only to deliver them believably, which he never fails to do. I felt very sorry for Gidger (we never learn if that is his first name, his last name, or neither) as it dawned on him that, while everyone around him will become important figures in the history of the 20th century, he is among the overwhelming majority of insignificant mortals over whom the veil of time will close as if they never had existed.
Lysy looks like living John Held, Jr. drawing, the epitome of the Jazz Age young man. Seavering claims that everyone who didn’t die in The Great War is young, and so is the 20th century, which is nothing but promise now that “everything bad that could happen has already happened” a line that earned a wry laugh from the audience who knew too well that in 1919 the bad things of the 20th century had only barely begun. Lysy brings to Seavering the earnest intelligence that are the mark of a young man destined for greatness.
Avers is saddled with the most long-winded of Greenberg’s Act I lines. At times I felt that the playwright was having his ardent young author speak the same prose that he wrote – and spoken and written English are two very different animals. If I had been reading Denny’s line I might have found them beautiful and inspiring. Hearing them spoken I thought, “What an odd young man.” Avers brings great physical energy to the role, literally climbing the walls of the office in Act I, before reining it in to create an equally passionate and more relatable character in Act II.
Armbruster is lovely and animated as the quirky heiress who masks her inner pain with outer flamboyance, and Alladin is all slink and slither as the worldly artiste who has won acclaim despite her color. I did find it a bit of a stretch to believe that Alladin could ever have “passed,” as her character is said to have done, even as a Basque. Greenberg allows Gidger to give voice to some hilariously racist remarks of the period, many of which he probably lifted from newspapers and popular magazines of the day. None are truly offensive, but some make an old fogy like me catch her breath because I can remember when the word “colored” was still in polite common usage.
From the moment you walk in to the BSC Main Stage and clap eyes on Wilson Chin’s dramatic set, vividly lit by Chris Lee, you know something is askew. There are barely any right angles on the set. The enormous sash windows of Seavering’s office in Manhattan’s Flatiron district – the hub of business in that era – are parallelograms (and one of them even opens!). Outside Jazz Age Manhattan is rendered in a black and white photograph against a white scrim of sky which Lee magically turns every color, including violet, during the course of the play. The mysterious machine is never seen but represented by shadows of enormous grinding gears and the effective sound design of Matt Nielson.
While the men’s costumes were all nicely 1919, I found Jessica Ford’s costumes for both Armbruster and Alladin to be decidedly odd. Armbruster is all triangles and tassels in a blue linen get-up that looks not unlike W.W. Denslow’s illustrations of the Munchkins’ national dress. And while each of the pieces Alladin wears is quite glamorous, the overall assemblage is not distinct to any particular period. She certainly isn’t dressed like Baker, who seems to have been very well dressed in private and quite famously undressed in public.
Greenberg’s tale had me in its thrall until the bitter end. I laughed and puzzled and wondered, and then...was that how it ended? Did that ending negate all the people and plot I had just invested two and half hours in? I am still not sure.
Did I mention that the action of the play takes place on April 1st?
The Barrington Stage Company production of the The Violet Hour runs through August 2 on the Main Stage at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and will be enjoyed for its lively sci-fi aspects by ages 13 and up. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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