Story: On April Fools’ Day, 1919, aspiring young publisher John Pace Seavering faces an increasingly serious dilemma. A pal from his Princeton days, Denis McCleary, has popped by Seavering’s Manhattan office to inquire about his opinion of McCleary’s sprawling saga of a novel or, as Seavering puts it, “a grouping of pages.” McCleary is desperate to have his work published so as to impress the wealthy father of the young woman, Rosamund Plinth, whom he hopes to marry.
Later that same day, Seavering is visited by the famous black songstress Jessie Brewster. Jessie has given Seavering her memoirs with the intention of having them published to “set the record straight” about her life and accomplishments. She pressures Seavering not only as a noted performer but also as his clandestine, older mistress, with the obvious tint of racial scandal. Since Seavering has only enough money to publish just one book, he frets over his stressful predicament.
Complicating matters further, his assistant Gidger informs him that a mysterious machine delivered to their office is spewing out papers that happen to be from books published in the future. As the two of them pore over the documents, they learn not only about major historic events of the 20th century but also about their own futures. However, can they do anything about any of it?
Highlights: Playwright Richard Greenberg’s portfolio includes the academic trifecta of Princeton, Harvard and Yale, universities he attended with honors while accruing degrees in creative writing and playwrighting. Author of dozens of works, he’s best known for his Tony Award-winning drama, Take Me Out, about a gay professional baseball player, as well as renowned dramas Eastern Standard and Three Days of Rain.
This two-act gem, first produced in 2002 by the South Coast Repertory in southern California and then transferred to Broadway in 2003, is a masterpiece of cunning and deception that hearkens to the works of Tom Stoppard in its complexity and clever construction.
Engaging, intriguing and intoxicating, The Violet Hour is an existential excursion into a panoply of perplexing problems, including loyalty, ambition, personal identity and the concept of time itself. Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga ensures that Greenberg’s intricately layered musings are available to the audience through the pinpoint performances of her stellar cast and whimsical technical effects in this St. Louis premiere.
Other Info: Mark Wilson’s scenic design brackets the meeting room in Seavering’s office with a pair of video projections that depict the sky outside. Immediately behind the room is a doorway that leads ostensibly to the rest of the office, but which allows also for an impressive cascade of papers hurled across the opening by a fan or some very dexterous technicians to indicate the fury of the futurist machine.
Supporting that effect is a mood-shifting lighting design offered by Maureen Berry as well as a sound design by Amanda Werre that accentuates the beating of an antique clock. Ryan Hanson contributes some handsome and dapper clothes to dress the characters, including the F. Scott Fitzgerald (McCreary) and Josephine Baker (Brewster) prototypes. Tyler Linke’s properties include several messy stacks of unsolicited manuscripts in Seavering’s office. Roxanne Aubrey Marina’s haunting graphic design adds to the aura and mystery, particularly at the story’s conclusion.
Ronga’s pacing is steady as she guides her performers through two radically different acts of comparable, one-hour lengths. The first act is as uproariously funny as the second act is starkly and poignantly serious, an abrupt turnabout handled adroitly by playwright Greenberg.
Antonio Rodriguez shines as the dutiful yet defiant subordinate Gidger, whether jousting with clever wordplay or immersing himself into the avalanche of papers filling Seavering’s office. Gidger unsuccessfully introduces guests to Seavering’s address after they’ve already entered, and struggles mightily to seize control of his under-achieving life, which is so dismal that his boss doesn’t even know whether Gidger is his assistant’s first name or last.
There’s also polished interpretation by Drew Pannebecker as the indecisive publisher. As Greenberg paints an ambiguous portrait of the aspiring lad with big dreams, Pannebecker shapes his portrayal within self-imposed boundaries that only adds to the mystery of his character in dazzling fashion. He’s counter-balanced by Jake Ferree’s riveting performance as the impetuous, manic and desperate McCreary. The subtle references to a possibly deeper relationship between the two college chums serve to enhance each actor’s portrayal.
Monica Parks is simply wonderful as the world-weary songstress. Beyond her beautifully articulated words, she adds to Jessie’s own surprising background with each nuance and gesture of a turned head or stoic expression in beguiling style. Betsy Bowman delights as the upper-crust Rosamund, who rebels against her father’s planned marriage for her to another wealthy scion with her wildly romantic passion for the penniless writer McCreary.
The Violet Hour, which takes its title from McCreary’s would-be novel, is dense in its myriad possibilities and well worth your attention. Even at that, you’ll likely leave scratching your head and contemplating a return to learn what you might have missed originally.
Play: The Violet Hour
Group: Max & Louie Productions
Venue: COCA Black Box Theatre, 524 Trinity Avenue
Dates: August 29, 30, 31, September 1, 2
Tickets: From $15 to $30; contact 725-6555 or maxandlouie.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb