‘The Violet Hour’ entertains with fantasy theme

Newspaper Review

Robert A. Cohn – St. Louis Jewish Light, August 29, 2012

The St. Louis premiere of “The Violet Hour”, by Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg, delivers a thought-provoking and entertaining evening of theater as it deals with issues of friendship, betrayal and the dangers of foreknowledge.

The time is April Fool’s Day, 1919 — a year before the Roaring Twenties kicks in and 10 years before the Great Depression takes root. John Pace Seavering, a recent Princeton graduate, is trying to make it as a New York City publisher at the very time that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other literary giants are getting noticed.

Seavering (well-played by Drew Pannebecker) is stringing along two writers with whom he has entangling and confusing relationships, which ultimately cloud his judgment as a publisher.

Denis McCleary (Jake Ferree, in a solid performance), Seavering’s best friend and former roommate at Princeton, has submitted a manuscript for a novel he entitles “The Violet Hour.” It contains beautiful florid prose, but its also disjointed and confusing as befits a brilliant and most likely alcoholic writer. McCleary feels the best way to impress the well-to-do family of his beautiful but unstable girlfriend (convincingly portrayed by Betsy Bowman) is to have his book published. Meanwhile, Seavering has been working on another manuscript, a tell-all memoir by Jessie Brewster, an African-American femme fatale. Brewster is stunningly portrayed by Monica Parks, whose acting genius shines through with every gesture and every line. It soon becomes apparent that Seavering and Brewster are having a torrid love affair, which places poor Seavering in the untenable position of having to choose between his college buddy and his lover.

Attempting to valiantly impose some semblance of order on the cramped and chaotic publisher’s office is Seavering’s loyal administrative assistant Gidger, who announces each visitor with early 20th century quaintness. When he announces the presence of Brewster as “The Raven-Skinned Songstress,” deft actor Antonio Rodriquez manages to make his character seem both sincere and oddly silly at the same time.

The self-absorbed Seavering is too caught up in his own dilemma of having to choose between the two flawed manuscripts that he fails to notice when Gidger tries several times to tell him that a new office machine is “spewing forth paper” in the back room. It turns out that printed on the paper is a full history of the next 50 or 60 years, not only of the nation and the world, but also the lives of the play’s main characters.

As the characters are forced to sort out their “here and now” crisis of which manuscript will be published, Seavering and Gidger are painfully aware of what will become of the world at large as well as their insular world. What will they do with their uninvited empowerment to know the future in detail? Can their knowledge enable them to change the immediate and long-term future? Is free will a reality or is the machine saying that the cause-and-effect laws of physics determine everything?

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga keeps the interactions among the performers seamless and manages to keep the action running smoothly. Vintage sets by scenic designer Mark Wilson also deserve a shout-out for packing lots of era-appropriate office equipment and other scenery that make the arrival of the mysterious crystal ball office machine all the more unsettling.

The venue of the black box theater in the former B’nai Amoona synagogue building also enhances the “unstuck in time” motif of this impressive work, staged by Max and Louie Productions.