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[THEATER REVIEW] The Violet Hour at Barrington Stage Company

The Violet Hour
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Barry Edelstein.

Gidger ………………Nat DeWolf
Rosamund Plinth……Heidi Armbruster
Denis McCleary…….Brian Avers
Jessie Brewster……...Opal Alladin
John Pace Seavering...Austin Lysy

Review by Chris Newbound

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., July 23, 2008) -- Much of what occurs in Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour turns on the fact that some of its characters learn what happens in the future. But just as such knowledge can’t necessarily alter how that future will play out, mounting a first-rate production of a troubled play, as has been done at Pittsfield, Mass. Barrington Stage Company, also has the feeling of the inevitable. The writing, as it were, is more or less on the wall.

Not to say that this handsome, well-acted production goes to waste: while this may be a lesser play of Greenberg’s, some playwright’s missteps are more interesting to sit through than other playwrights’ successes, especially when it’s Tony-award winning Greenberg (“Take Me Out”), one of the more interesting, lyrical playwrights writing today.

And it does all start out so promising, with the spacious, layered, detailed set design by Wilson Chin, smart, period costumes that don’t distract by Jessica Ford, and subtle, lighting by Chris Lee that somehow evokes a more muted-colored world, as if a fading photograph from the period it’s meant to depict, spring 1919. More than capably helmed by stage vet Barry Edelstein, the performances are crisp and natural, and with the possible exception of Brian Avers (playing Denis “Denny” McCleary) who everyone refers to as charismatic, but shows little evidence of it himself when onstage, a minor complaint, there are no weak links here in this five-hander.

Nat DeWolf playing office assistant Gidger certainly does his part, offering up as much comic relief as possible (think young Nathan Lane), and Opal Alladin brings strength, dignity, and a sexuality all her own to the role of African American singer/writer, Jessie Brewster; Heidi Armbruster as Rosamund turns in a solid, subtle, and entirely sympathetic performance; and Austin Lysy, who, but for a few moments near the end of the play is onstage for its entirety, couldn’t be asked to do much more as the bewildered, well-meaning publisher, John Pace Seavering. After an early misstep of his own (as Romeo at Williamstown Theatre Festival where critics panned his perf.) this is a star-launching performance if ever there was one. So what’s missing?

Well, heart and humanity for starters. Set in the publishing world that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Maxwell Perkins must have known, the human element here (not much of one) is new publisher with limited resources, Seavering, having to choose between two manuscripts: his new mistresses’ memoir or his college pal Denny’s novel, so massive and in need of editing that it would make Thomas Wolfe feel like a minimalist. Complicating matters further is that Denny wants to marry a meat heiress (“Is she beefy?” jokes Seavering), and the only way her father will allow the marriage is if Denny shows some promise, i.e. a book under contract would do the trick.

At the end of a long, uneventful first act, where all principals are introduced and this rather uncomplicated plot is set in motion, a time machine that spits out literature and history from the end of the twentieth century is inexplicably introduced. When the second act opens, Seavering and Gidger have been reading for hours, gleaming major whiffs of what the rest of the century will have to offer (“What’s World War One?” asks Gidger, realizing at last that the recent “Great War” gets “demoted”). But apart from Gidger proclaiming that, “We are never again eating red meat,” the light, Front Page quality of the play is soon but a memory, as Greenberg takes a page out of Dickens’s ghost of Christmas futures, proving once again, that it’s never really a good idea to find out what happens next before it actually happens.

Despite how muddled things become, topped off by a more-happy-than-expected ending hastily reached (spoiler alert: turns out Seavering can publish both books, after all), the writing is seamless and even significant, more than occasionally making the efforts of this excellent ensemble worthwhile. Still, by play’s end, one feels much the way the characters must in that disheveled office of theirs: weighed down by the pages and pages of words that have been tossed onto the floor, quickly losing faith that much meaning could be made out of this mess even if they had the energy to try.

Sets, Wilson Chin; costumes, Jessica Ford; lighting, Chris Lee; music, original music & sound, Matthew M. Nielson; production stage manager, C. Renee Alexander. Opened and reviewed July 20, 2008. Runs through August 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Chris Newbound is managing editor and a theater critic at Berkshire Living magazine. This review originally appeared in VARIETY .

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