By Pat Launer
What, you may ask, is The Violet Hour?
It’s twilight-time in Old New Yawk
When Richard Greenberg’s witty folk
Laugh and love and tawk, tawk, tawk.
THE SHOW: THE VIOLET HOUR, another play from the prolific Richard Greenberg; premiered at South Coast Repertory Theatre in 2002
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Greenberg was reportedly inspired by a photo from the 1920s – several women gazing admiringly and longingly into an I. Miller shoe shop on Fifth Avenue, a New York store that served afternoon tea during its ‘style seminars.’ From this image, he created a quirky contemplation of Time, a meditation on loyalty and legacy and living in the moment. The title comes from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” restated (differently, but still poetically) by a character in the play, the brash writer Denny, who explains it as “that time that wonderful New York hour when the evening’s about to reward you for the day – The violet light you walk between that hastens you places.”
Greenberg has long been fascinated by the vagaries and capriciousness of Time and that elusive “light you walk between.” This play doesn’t approach the scintillating brilliance of his Three Days of Rain¸ a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was presented at the Old Globe in 1999. Last year, Take Me Out, his Tony Award-winning mega-hit, the nude-shower-scene baseball story, became the best-selling non-musical production in the Globe’s history. And that brings us to The Violet Hour.
Set in New York in 1919, the play concerns John Pace Seavering, a Princeton grad and newly returned veteran of the Great War. He’s taken his small trust fund and opened a publishing business, renting a cramped, run-down office in a high-rise in New York Flatiron district. He only has enough money to launch his company with one book. But should it be the gargantuan, multi-crate tome of his best buddy from college? Or the straightforward, no-nonsense memoir of his very secret mistress, a mixed-race singer more than faintly reminiscent of Josephine Baker? Greenberg clearly bases his characters on other well-knowns: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and fabled editor Maxwell Perkins. Seavering doesn’t appear to have creative ability of his own, but over the course of the play, he learns that he has a talent for spotting and nurturing talent in others. While he spends most of the exposition-heavy first act rummaging through his paper-piled office, searching for theater tickets for the evening, his tightly wrapped assistant repeatedly pops in to report that a strange machine has appeared and it’s spewing reams of paper in a sort of manuscript monsoon. As the characters blithely quip their way through the over-long act, filled with a surfeit of acrobatic wordplay, the papers accumulate, culminating in an act-ending shocker that turns the world upside down.
In the second, far more interesting and satisfying act, each character has revealed a secret and also learned something that will help them change their outlook on the present, past and future – thanks to the otherworldly, sci-fi-friendly machine, whose output foretells the future by looking back on the present as past. Can we glimpse the future – and change it? Can we learn from experience and adapt? Is one interpretation of reality accurate or sufficient? The play poses heady, thought-provoking questions about the capriciousness of Time. Even if it’s not as structurally inventive as Three Days, the factual/fictional nature of the characters is intriguing, and offers many What If? propositions .
THE PLAYERS: Under the deft direction of Carolyn Cantor, this is truly an ensemble piece, with none of the scene-stealing bravado or comic antics that have plagued other productions. Lucas Hall is aptly uptight as Seavering, a privileged, proper WASP who is slow to realize his own future importance. T. Scott Cunningham is amusing as Gidger, a comic role perilously close to the one he played at the Globe in Greenberg’s Take Me Out. But he’s a versatile enough actor to make Gidger different – or at least neurotic in a different way. He’s funny when, employing the words and phrases on the pages he’s reading from the future, he unconsciously morphs into an exaggerated, late-20th century version of himself. As the besotted (but soon to be dysfunctional) Scott and Zelda stand-ins, Patch Darragh plays down the arrogance and Kristen Bush plays up the debutante. It works just fine. Christen Simon is attractive and enigmatic as the chanteuse who’s forced to face her present and her past, not to mention a frightening future.
THE PRODUCTION: The costumes (Robert Blackman) are stunning, especially for the ladies. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) captures the pale light of those old chain-dangling ceiling fixtures – and as the day progresses, the creeping lavender hues of the title. David Korins’ set is perfect – a high-ceilinged, wood-wainscoted Old New York office, with a radiator and soaring windows that look out on a water tower, a brick building and the ever-changing sky beyond. The scuffed wooden floor is piled high with “sheaves and reams and passels and stacks and pillars” of paper (as noted, that first act is decidedly, self-consciously word-drunk). Best of all, the whole room is angled out into the audience, forcing an alternate perspective, which is just what the play is all about.
THE LOCATION: At the Old Globe Theatre, through June 25.
THE BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
New Voice in Town
VOX NOVA THEATRE COMPANY is a new venture spearheaded by Executive Artistic Director Ruff Yeager and Associate Artistic Director Kirsten Brandt. The group’s inaugural fundraising event is on Monday, June 12 in the Lyceum Theatre. The first offering of this new play development company is a workshop/staged reading of a farce called Oedipus in the Tragicomic Bathtub, written by Yeager, directed by Brandt. The all-star cast features Priscilla Allen, Laura Bozanich, Patricia Elmore-Costa, Phil Johnson, Jeannine Marquie, John Martin, Mike Sears, Matt Thompson, Wendy Waddell, George Weinberg-Harter and Jeff Wells. For info: it www.voxnovatheatrecompany.com
… and a familiar voice: On Book OnStage, the staged reading series presented by the Actors Alliance of San Diego, continues on Monday, June 5, with Spring’s Awakening, by the daring and controversial German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864 – 1918). The play, which Wedekind called “a tragedy of childhood,” concerns a group of imaginative pre-adolescents, and touches on such still-shocking subjects as teen suicide, child abuse and sexuality . This is Actors Alliance Program Director Jason Heil’s directing debut. Monday, June 5, 7pm at Diversionary Theatre. Be forewarned: the play contains Adult Themes. But the cast is rated VG (for Very Good): Sonya Bender, Sandy Campbell, Alice Cash, Sylvia Enrique, Megan Fonseca, Sidney Franklin, Eric George, Morgan Hollingsworth, Kevin Koppman-Gue, Jessica Lerner, Andrea Maida, Luke Marinkovich, Celeste Martinez, Joe Nesnow, Alexander Nguyen, John Rosen, Tom Zohar. For info: 619-640-3900 or www.actorsalliance.com.
….That newly svelte singer extraordinaire, Devlin, has been accepted for The Fourth Annual Cabaret Conference at Yale this summer, organized in conjunction with the Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre. The intensive, 9-day program only accepts 36 students a year from around the country and as far afield as Toronto and London . Among the award-winning faculty this year is Amanda McBroom (cabaret darling and composer of “The Rose” and the musical Heartbeats), one of Devlin’s favorites.
….Myra McWethy , who got her start in San Diego and went on to glory in Menopause, The Musical, and other high-profile productions, writes that she’s a new ‘cover-girl’ in the world of bearded ladies. Check her out, looking regular and with face hair in Surrender Dorothy, at http://www.themakeupgallery.info/weird/beard/beards.htm . ‘Weird Beard’ is right!
….Kevin Six is a finalist in a prestigious New York playwriting contest – the Diverse Voices Playwriting Competition. His entry, The L Word, is scheduled for a reading on June 19 at the Hinton Battle Theatre Laboratory. In the meantime (while he’s working out how he’s gonna get there), Kevin is in rehearsal for Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, directed by D.J. Sullivan, opening Friday, June 3 at the Swedenborgian Theatre at 1531 Tyler Ave. For info: 858-274-1731.
Act Like a Pro
Learn How to Audition Like a Professional, in a high-profile workshop taught by some of San Diego ’s best directors: David Ellenstein, Kristianne Kurner, Sean Murray, Rosina Reynolds and Sam Woodhouse. The ‘institute’ includes eight hours of coaching over two nights, a résumé review, and a DVD of your audition session. June 5 and 6, at the University of San Diego on; tuition is $129; limited enrollment, register at www.comforum.org (sponsored by the communicationFORUM, a non-profit organization).
Don’t miss the Tribute to an Uncommon Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein at North Coast Repertory Theatre, performed in concert with the 13th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. Readings of three of Wasserstein’s plays, featuring all-star casts. On Monday, June 5, Uncommon Women and Others, directed by Rosina Reynolds; on Tuesday, June 6, Isn’t It Romantic (I’ll be part of that knockout cast, which also includes Rhianna Basore, Tom Zohar, Ralph Elias and Christy Lipinsky, co-directed by Todd Salovey and Emily Cornelius); and on Wednesday, June 7, Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Heidi Chronicles, starring David Ellenstein and Lynne Griffin, who performed 14 years ago in the first San Diego production! Hurry and get your tix @ 888-776-NCRT or www.northcoastrep.org
DOIN’ IT FOR THE KIDS…
The Old Globe is gearing up for two educational programs: Shakespeare Unplugged, a three-part, curriculum-based project that revolves around the summer Shakespeare Festival productions: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello and Titus Andronicus. Students grade 6-12 will receive pre-and post performance interactive discussions from a Globe professional teaching artist. Contact: groups@TheOldGlobe.org. All the World’s a Stage , also aimed at grades 6-12, will present a touring production of The Stones, a thought-provoking Australian play that encourages young people to think about the consequences of their actions. Teachers can access the online study guide to promote classroom discussion for the performances beginning next fall. Contact Raul Moncada: RMoncada@TheOldGlobe.org .
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Violet Hour – lovely production of a thought-provoking play by the prolific, Time-obsessed Richard Greenberg
At the Old Globe Theatre, through June 25
Zhivago – the world premiere musical is here at last, with all the romance and extravagance you anticipated
At the La Jolla Playhouse, EXTENDED through July 9.
“Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank – physically confining, emotionally powerful
Eveoke Dance theatre at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, through June 4.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? — funny/sad/poignant play, with fine performances and just the right Brooklyn Jewish tone
Premiere Productions at the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through June 4
Atwater Fixin’ to Die – unsatisfying play, unsavory man, but excellent solo performance by Jeffrey Jones
At Cygnet Theatre, through June 18
Pulp – side-splitting spoof of lesbian pulp fiction; terrific ensemble
A MOXIE/Diversionary co-production, at Diversionary Theatre, through June 11
No Way to Treat a Lady – hilarious noir musical (murder CAN be tuneful and funny!), an outstanding cast, well directed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through June 4
Crave – very well done, but not for everyone (dark, confusing, disturbing, depressing)
At Lynx Performance Theatre space in Clairemont, through June 11
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , LAST CHANCE: through June 11.
June is busting out all over – even at the theater! And don’t forget to vote – your future depends on it!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.