The Violet Hour at Max & Louie

Newspaper Review

Andrea Braun –, August 26, 2012

In the beginning there was the word. And in the middle and in the end, more words announce our arrivals and departures from this world. Words inform us of the past and outline our hopes for the future. But what if we knew the future through words given us by a magical machine?

If you’re John Pace Seavering (Drew Pannebecker) and his office factotum Gidger (Antonio Rodriguez), you look ahead. You see what’s coming, good and bad. Can events be altered to turn out more favorably, or was the advice given Superman correct: You can use your power in the world, but you must not try to change the future?

Seavering is a recent Princeton graduate whose wealthy father has set him up in a small office where he hopes to publish books. It is the year after the “Great War” has ended, and Seavering’s enthusiasm about the future is boundless. He believes that the worst that can happen already has, and things look rosy ahead. His biggest problem at the moment is which of two manuscripts he’s been given should be published because he doesn’t think he can afford both. One is a thousand-plus page, disorganized opus by his college friend, Denis McCleary (Jake Ferree). McCleary has thought of a title: The Violet Hour to describe that time of day just between daylight and darkness. He is Seavering’s Thomas Wolfe, but Seavering is no Maxwell Perkins, as he admits when he summarizes himself as one who has no particular talent but can recognize it in others.

The second manuscript was written by Seavering’s secret lover, Jessie Brewster (Monica Parks), an African-American singer of some renown who is also 14 years older than he. I’m not sure what she sees in him because they could never be together publicly (“You’re miscegenating?” [sic] a horrified Gidger explains when he learns of the relationship.) But she wants her story told and insists that hers is the truth of her life. When we meet Seavering, this is the book toward which he appears to be leaning.

On April 1, 1919 (I’m sure the date is no accident) Gidger takes delivery of a mysterious package containing a machine that we never see, but it is a sort of psychic in a box as it spews out random bits of literature, news, and even scholarship involving Seavering and his associates from far into the future, as late as 1995. The scenes involving the unveiling of information are funny on their own but made hilarious by the highly strung Gidger. He is desperate to be recognized, even asking Seavering if the boss knows whether “Gidger” is his first name or last. (Seavering just assumed it was a nickname.) It does seem to convey a sense of a gadget gone wild. Rodriguez is always good, but he outdoes himself here as the dithering assistant, a sort of logorrheic Bartleby.

Pannebecker is also one of the best young actors in town (and I wish he’d stay here). He provides a sturdy center, a kind of Nick Carraway, if he’d been more like Gatsby. He wears his perfectly tailored clothes well, and he is at ease in himself. Not so his old pal McCleary. He is given to flights of eloquence that sometimes go over the top, especially in describing his love for the pretty but oddly named Rosamund Plinth (Betsy Bowman). A “plinth” is the base that holds up the pedestal of a statue, and Rosamund is certainly not remarkable for her stability. The couple believe they can only be married if McLeary’s book is going to be published to prove to her rich father that he’s not a fortune hunter (plus she already has a fiancé with whom she’ll need to break up).

So, as if life isn’t complicated enough at this point, the future intrudes. At first, Seavering and Gidger find reading the pages fascinating, but then the full weight of what they are learning begins to hit them. They find out what is in store for themselves and for the other three, and here Seavering determines to bend fate to his own will. How that works out is at the center of this fascinating play. There are delightful little parallels as we go along; for example, McLeary says in the ongoing battle between H.G. Wells and Henry James that he is a “Wellsian,” then a kind of time machine shows up. Literary criticism gets its share of well-deserved and amusing blows to its inflated sense of self-importance and questionable accuracy. Gidger is horrified to discover that the physical book is in decline in the late 20th century, so e-readers are prefigured and all these pages and pages that litter the set will be obsolete. Over-sharing is noted in later 20th century writings that inclines toward the development of and obsession with social media. Rosamund says she has the “curse of prophecy,” thus aligning herself with the machine. And so on.

Sydnie Grosberg Ronga’s direction is excellent for the most part, but she’s blocked the show oddly. Sit house left (the black box is set up in ¾ round) because that side seems to get the most face time and the center perhaps the least. Mark Wilson’s scenic design is terrific and is enhanced by Maureen Berry’s lights. The men’s costumes, especially Rodriguez’s and hairstyles are period perfect except that Pannebecker’s modern undershirt shows. That could be easily remedied. The only outfit that puzzles me is Bowman’s who looks like she has a quilt tied around her butt, but the colors are flattering. And it took me the longest time to figure out the sound design, but it’s interesting. Pay attention to Amanda Werre’s clever selections.

There seems to be a sense that these characters do know that they are performing, not just speaking among themselves. Jessie Brewster even suggests that they aren’t wearing clothes, but costumes. Richard Greenberg’s play may be a little draggy in spots, but the actors are all playing at the top of their form and I enjoyed and admired almost every minute of it. And, to the playwright’s stated wish and a running joke in The Violet Hour, the end is not predictable.