The Violet Hour
Richard Green – talkinbroadway.com, August 30, 2012
These are some great young actors to watch, while your ears exult in the equally great writing of Richard Greenberg’s 2003 play. It all combines to create a beautiful feeling of madness—not up there on the stage, where things do get pretty horrifying, but in the audience, once a terrible storm is past.
Like Three Days of Rain, one of his earlier plays, The Violet Hour operates in the past and the present to gradually strip the glamour and romance off the past. In Three Days of Rain, Greenberg used the entire second act to humanize some legendary parents who had permanently dwarfed their offspring. But this time, he unloads a mysterious Xerox or fax-type machine in the middle of act one, just off-stage in 1919. And the genuinely funny thing is, the blizzard of paper it spits out all comes from 1999, eighty years later, as a fledgling publishing house is invaded by the modern point of view. But, in a nice turnabout, it’s the present that gets brought down to earth this time around.
A boyish publisher (Drew Pannebecker) begins to see the danger of all the concessions he’s making so early in his career—and how dramatically he’ll change lives, years and years down the road. He’s less and less gleeful, and more and more hollowed-out in just a single day’s work, as he tries to save the lives of authors he seems destined to destroy. Meanwhile, Antonio Rodriguez, as his fussbudget assistant Gidger, gets to evolve his new character as he learns of all the changes eventually in store for people like him. And with Pannebecker and Rodriguez on stage, the mood blossoms like a wonderful new installment of “The Kids in the Hall.” That mood gradually changes to something far more complex, over the next two well-spent hours.
Most of the night’s comedy comes at the expense of our own present day freedoms and attitudes, which we see anew, in that publisher’s office, eighty years ago. Racial and sexual liberation are implied with good humor, but our shallowness, and humorlessness as a post-Cold War people, and our strange post-Reagan haughtiness, all seem like wild, aberrant mistakes in the wake of their own recent “war to end war.” It really refreshes the soul to see ourselves from that long-ago perspective, and to realize how soulless and two-dimensional we might seem to these men, on the threshold of the Roaring Twenties.
The young publisher’s secret relationship with a black singer provides a bracing sense of defiance against the racial rules of 1919, and Monica Parks (as singer Jessie Brewster) has many delicious moments where she tries to measure the depth of the ice she’s skating on, in her affair with Mr. Pannebecker’s character. Watching Ms. Parks, you get the distinct impression she’s not entirely sure she’s made the right decision in trusting a very young publisher with her memoir, or trusting him with herself either.
Jake Ferree, as an aspiring novelist, gives a strangely entrancing, stylistic depth to the role of Denis McCleary, a character who exults in pure mood and atmosphere who, even when things turn horribly wrong, can still think in perfect poetry, but never gets it down for publication where it might do him some good. Betsy Bowman, as his wealthy fiancée, becomes an equally dizzying riddle: as the girl who has everything, until the tide goes out; and the irresistible fiction she’s created of herself takes a beating, as the future speaks into their present lives.
That being said, the worst of it all goes by in a rush, while director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga wraps a strange story up in the most beautiful and witty of performances on stage. And if we really could change the future, before it ever happened, would things really be better, or surprisingly worse? And if we could manage to change it once, couldn’t we change it again? Would the horrible truth about each person’s inherent weakness or their genetics or what-have-you make all that intervention meaningless, and perhaps even more tragic?
Or, is there another way out?
(Sorry, it’s not my job to say.)
The Violet Hour runs through September 2, 2012, at the black box theater in COCA, 524 Trinity Ave., immediately east (and a block south) of the gates of University City, MO. For more information visit www.maxandlouie.com, or call (314) 795-8778. Enter the lobby around back, off the medium-sized parking lot.