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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Excellent Cast Manipulates a Spurious Plot in Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour

Also see Richard's review of The Night of the Hunter

San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the Northern California premiere of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour at 536 Sutter Street, where it will play through October 23rd. Director Bill English has assembled a splendid cast of actors for this play that involves the nature of time and fate. The poignant drama had its world premiere at the South Coast Rep in November, 2002 and moved to New York to inaugurate Manhattan Theatre Club's new Broadway home, the remodeled Biltmore Theatre. The New York cast included Robert Sean Leonard, Robin Miles, Scott Foley, Dagmara Dominczyk and Mario Cantone.

Richard Greenberg is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and I have enjoyed other works of his, such as Eastern Standard, Three Days of Rain, The Dazzle and his Tony winning Take Me Out (which will playing at Curran Theatre later this year). However, in this somewhat sci-fi drama, the playwright seems very heavy handed and the characters never seem real. It is difficult to get emotionally involved in what is going on in this play exercise with stilted speeches that border on melodrama. There are rich and intelligent words, literary meanings and even some vigorous humor, but it's difficult to get excited about what is going on with these five characters.

The Violet Hour takes place in 1919 in the office of fledgling publisher John Pace Seavering (Liam Vincent). He is a recent Princeton graduate from a rich family and has taken just enough money from his father to publish one book. He must make an all important decision between two strong authors. Both have personal strings attached to the young publisher. John's close college friend Denis McCleary (Kevin Rolston) has written a massive tome that must run into five volumes based on the theory of life. (Denis says "After they read my book, no one will ever want to read another book again.") You also get the feeling that John has latent homoerotic feelings about Denis - a handsome and naive young man from a poor family who is hopelessly in love with meat packing heiress Rosamund (Lauren English). The second book is an autobiography of chic black singer Jessie Brewster (Kathleen Antonia) with whom John is having a passionate affair.

During the first act, John and Denis discuss the latest hit on the Broadway stage, and Denis says, "The big problem with the Broadway theatre, you always know what's going to happen." Richard Greenberg decides to throw a ringer into a rather staid melodrama by introducing a surreal machine which has arrived at the office. John's assistant, the hyperactive Gidger (Louis Parnell), is beside himself as the machine begins to spew piles and piles of printed paper. At the end of the first act, we discover that these pages were written many years in the future. They tell what is going to happen as the 20th century proceeds.

The Violet Hour's second act is more concise and contains the best scenes as the play becomes more solemn. Gidger and John are engrossed in the news of the future. There is a wonderful scene in which Gidger discovers that the word "gay" will have a different connotation. John sees that none of his close friends will have a good life in the future; he does not know how to proceed nor how the future can be undone.

Playwright Greenberg has patterned his characters after real people in the literary world. John Pace Seavering is the shadow of noted publisher Maxwell Perkins. John's lover is supposed to be the great Josephine Baker while Denis is a shadow of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Denis's lover and future wife Rosamund is patterned after the free-spirited and neurotic Zelda Fitzgerald.

The Violet Hour's cast is excellent, and they rise above the script in many scenes. Liam Vincent (Noises Off at San Jose Rep and Pasadena Playhouse and Henry IV at Cal Shakes) once again is dependably fine, conversing his anguish in John's quandary. Kevin Rolston (Sex Habits of American Women plus member of the Shakespeare Company of New Jersey for three years) gives a polished performance as the bouncy and boyish Denis. His lovely speech on the meaning of the term "the violet hour," which is the lovely time of day when evening is approaching and everything looks violet, is excellent.

Louis Parnell goes all out as the flamboyant and histrionic fellow who must have been the forerunner of some of our outrageous queens today. He plays the role to the hilt. Kathleen Antonia is sublime as worldly Jessie, and Lauren English (The Glory of Living and This Is Our Youth) is elegant with a few neurotic tendencies thrown in for good measure.

Bill English's direction is crisp and fast moving and he has also designed a wonderful detailed set of an office in the Flat Iron building in 1919. Although the surreal machine is never shown, you see papers being hurled out like Hurricane Francis has hit the back of the stage.

The Violet Hour will play through October 23rd at San Francisco Playhouse, 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets and reservations call 415-677-9596 or go to reservations@sfplayhouse.org. There next production will be the Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town which opens on November 17th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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