The Violet Hour by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Evan Yionoulis. Set design by Christopher Barreca. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Scott Myers. Special Effects design by Gregory Meeh. Cast: Mario Cantone, Dagmara Dominczyk, Scott Foley, Robert Sean Leonard, Robin Miles.
Richard Greenberg defines the title of his new play, The Violet Hour, within the play as the uniquely New York moment when day gives way to night, the moment that "rewards you for the day." Greenberg's play, too, may be seen as something similar, a work tackling familiar subjects and themes in a quirky, otherworldly way that rewards you for sticking through to the end.
That's occasionally a challenge, as most of the show's pleasures are contained in its second act; the first act tends to feel as if it's bogged down in exposition, and Greenberg doesn't always execute the plot's setup as deftly as he could. Yet, in so thoroughly establishing the world of 1919 New York as a place of mundanity similar to our own time, he is able to quite effectively turn the characters' (and the audience's) preconceptions on their heads.
Greenberg has a number of accomplices in his game of deception. First and foremost is the director, Evan Yionoulis, who disarmingly undersells key parts of the story so that the real plot may be constructed in the background. Then there's the design: Christopher Barreca's set is the most subversive, a Flatiron-inspired office so authentic looking that its skewed perspective, like Greenberg's, is essentially hidden; Jane Greenwood's costumes and Donald Holder's lights point out the most subtle or stereotypical of traits to suggest that the characters (including New York City) are behaving normally, when the opposite is more accurately true.
Finally are the characters themselves, at once types and original creations: John Pace Seavering (Robert Sean Leonard) is a new publisher trying to find his foothold in the industry; Gidger (Mario Cantone) is his tightly wound assistant; and John's best friend Denis McCleary (Scott Foley) is running around with meatpacking heiress Rosamund Plinth (Dagmara Dominczyk), whose parents will only allow her to marry a man of financial promise. Only John's girlfriend and closely guarded secret, star singer Jessie Brewster (Robin Miles), the type of instantly intriguing persona somewhat common in other plays set in this time period, is Greenberg's open capitulation to form.
The story, too, is of similar covert design: As John, severely limited in funds, can only publish one book, should it be Jessie's persuasive memoirs or Denis's unwieldy but brilliant tome, The Violet Hour? Can issues like this support a full-length play by themselves? Of course not; that's part of Greenberg's most significant argument: one interpretation of events should never blind one to other possibilities.
So, these characters must have their eyes opened, which Greenberg does by introducing a strange machine to the publishing office that seems to do little more than spout out hundreds upon hundreds of pages of writing on strange and unfamiliar subjects. The revelation of the machine's true purpose in the last line of the first act kicks the play into high gear and finally allows Greenberg to address the audience directly, using the audience's previous knowledge of events to prove to them what they don't already know.
Within the world of the play, the pages provide a valuable source of information to the characters, and help them change their outlooks on the present, past, and future. John and Gidger are most affected - John by his unwillingness to accept their meaning or inability to recognize his role in giving them meaning, while Gidger is so taken with their contents that he unconsciously morphs into an exaggerated version of himself, almost a 2003 version of himself, who happens to be extremely similar to Mario Cantone. (Cantone's transformation is the show's funniest and most delightful surprise.)
Everyone gains a particular amount of freedom from the pages: Greenberg is allowed to open up and have more fun in his writing, and it's never more thoughtful or moving than in the second act; the characters realize they are capable of more than they once thought, but face greater responsibilities as a result; and the show's performers are allowed greater opportunities to define their characters. Leonard comes alive as a man who's found his purpose, Cantone lets loose as the story's semi-knowing comic relief, and Dominczyk and Foley get to explore the romantic boundaries of Greenberg's world in one of the play's (and the season's) most touching scenes, set during the play's own violet hour.
Only Miles's performance tends to remain stolid; she deserves a bit of leeway, having only recently assumed the role from original star Jasmine Guy, and the performance I attended was her one week anniversary as the role's billed performer. Aside from one burdensome yet vital transformative scene, Greenberg provides fewer juicy opportunities for Jessie (and the actress playing her) to grab onto. Time may well allow Miles to better find her footing.
But Greenberg argues that time is ultimate arbiter - what seems true today may prove false tomorrow, and what one generation accepts as fact could easily be disputed a few decades down the line. If never tight or focused enough to enter the pantheon of modern American classics, time will likely be kind to The Violet Hour, as viewers, readers, and practitioners have the opportunity to further explore and interpret its relevance to their current time - or any other.