There's no escaping the thought that, through his caviling characters, Greenberg is getting a dig in not only at the Great White Way offerings of 1919 but also taking a wry jab at present-day shows. He's signaling that the play he's about to unfold will be immaculately unpredictable even as he issues a challenge to anyone -- reviewers especially? -- to watch the proceedings and conclude otherwise. The fly in the ointment is that unpredictability is not the sole element that serves to differentiate superlative drama from superfluous drama. Additional ingredients are necessary -- and Greenberg, who remains one of today's most thoughtful playwrights, has included some of them here while excluding others.
Following on the heels of Take Me Out, The Violet Hour makes it clear that the former play is something of an anomaly in Greenberg's lengthening canon. That opus, which takes baseball as its subject, is told in a straightforward manner. What Take Me Out doesn't have is the fascination with the effects of time's passage that preoccupied Greenberg in two previous plays, Three Days of Rain and Everett Beekin -- and maybe even in The Dazzle, which also concerns what deteriorates and what accumulates over time.
In The Violet Hour, Greenberg toys with time in a manner that perhaps even more strongly recalls J.B. Priestley's playful yet grave preoccupations in works like Time and the Conways: He shows us a day in which publishing hopeful Seavering has to decide which of two books he can afford to issue on the meager capital he possesses while waiting to come into his inheritance. The choice is between a sprawling novel to be called The Violet Hour, which Seavering's friend McCleary has jotted down, and a memoir by Jessie Brewster, a famous black singer.
During the eight or ten hours covered by the action, Brewster (Robin Miles) visits Seavering's office in what appears to be a downtown Manhattan cast-iron building, arrestingly designed with close attention to detail and forced perspective by Christopher Barreca. Not only is Seavering interested in the lady's book, he's also interested in the lady. McCleary, for his part, is gaga over a Chicago meatpacking heiress and brings her by to meet Seavering. She's Rosamund Plinth (Dagmara Dominczyk), who can only obtain her father's consent to marry if her prospective husband has prospects -- which McCleary's book represents. So The Violet Hour (title taken from T. S. Eliot's Waste Land) turns on the choice that Seavering must make between a woman for whom he has developed a passion and a talented, impoverished friend in need.
Greenberg rips the chronology apart by introducing, on this April Fool's day, an offstage machine (special effects by Gregory Meeh) that presents a dilemma for theater critics. How much do you say about something like this without spoiling the fun for audiences? With that in mind: The gadget, spewing paper in an anteroom, is something of a time machine. It calls into question Seavering's optimism as expressed in a happy moment early in the play when he's talking amorously to Brewster about having survived WW-I: "If we're lost and ecstatic, it's because we have lost so much and have everything to gain and will gain it. And those who aren't dead are young." With that damned appliance churning away, Seavering's rosy outlook is contradicted.
The playwright is admirably pondering the notion of fate. More seriously, he's taken up the idea that hope springs eternal in the human breast and goes on to suggest that this conviction is very likely unrealistic. He further wants to say that it's human nature to forge on nonetheless. But the way in which Greenberg makes these points isn't very productive, even if he's clever about keeping an audience wondering where he's going next. For example, he doesn't seem to have thought through the Seavering-Brewster relationship. Yes, they could have done business together in 1919, but would they have pawed each other quite so freely? And would they have wanted to be seen in public together, as they are shown contemplating? Along with its other dramaturgical defects, the play gives too much stage time to Gidger, a scene-stealing companion to Take Me Out's gregariously gay Mason Marzac.
Incidentally, Jessie Brewster may be meant to conjure Josephine Baker -- note the initials -- even though Baker's fame flowered in the '20s. By the same token, McCleary, the old Princeton chum in love with an adorably seductive belle, is probably inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his missus. It's Scott and Zelda -- er, Denis and Rosamund -- who actually take advantage of the violet hour by sitting not long before the play's fade-out in a melting violet sunset that designer Donald Holder throws through the set's large windows. During this evocative stage minute or two, Rosamund is wearing a violet dress -- only one of the eye-catching pieces that costume designer Jane Greenwood has come up with for the cast.
As the frequent Greenberg collaborator Evan Yionoulis has directed the players, they're not only distinguished by their smart attire. Robert Sean Leonard, recovered from the consumption that afflicted him earlier in the season during Long Day's Journey Into Night, is bright-eyed and knowing in the somehow underwritten part of Seavering. Mario Cantone (rhymes with "rant tone") keeps things at a Paul-Lynde pitch. Scott Foley is rightly ardent and impatient. Robin Miles and Dagmara Dominczyk -- both of whom replaced other performers in recent weeks -- are solid adornments, not only striking in their Greenwood fashions but also articulate and stirring. Like its characters, the flawed Violet Hour deserves a future.