July 20, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
The basic idea behind Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour now playing at the Berkshire Stage Company is a fascinating one.
The action of the play takes place in the incredibly messy office of John (Austin Lysy) just back from WWI (that war they thought would end all wars); the time is April 1919. John’s father is going to back him, minimally, to become a publisher with enough to publish one book. He has advertised for scripts and been deluged with them, stacks and stacks of manuscripts lie everywhere.
Set designer Wilson Chin has not only gone all out on cluttered office, he has created the illusion that the dingy office is high up in a Manhattan loft with the back wall a great slant of windows that look out on the a lofty hotel (the Plaza?) across the street, all giving the feeling of being high above the city.
We soon learn that the deluge of scripts is not what John needs or wants. He already has two scripts he is eager to print. Both are memoirs.
The first is huge, (filling great boxes and obviously far longer than War and Peace.) Its author is Denny, (Brian Avers) best friend from his Princeton days, desperate to have it published because only his success can win for him the woman he loves, the beautiful Rosamund (Heidi Armbruster), a woman whose unusual laugh haunts him.
The second script is a much shorter one, written (she claims without ghostwriter) by the enchanting femme fatale Jesse (Opal Alladin), a gorgeous, mature, black singer with whom John is having an affair. At first glance one would think the play could evolve into a hilarious retake of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma in which only one of two dying patients can be chosen for the treatment.
However the play is much more complex than that.
The fifth character Gidger (Nat DeWolf) is first aware that something much more significant than John’s difficult choice is going on. Gidger is only the put-upon office menial, but it is he who ultimately alerts John to the dreadful machine that, coming from nowhere, has landed in the outer office and is spewing out typed pages at an alarming rate. This awesome machine is brilliantly brought on-stage by the set, sound, and lighting crew who present it as great shadowed spinning wheels beyond the office door.
This situation and the five characters, all talented and winning actors, wonderfully garbed in 1919 regalia by Jessica Ford, spin about the stage in the first act, one written with witty dialog, strong character roles and a laugh a minute. We learn much about them which will become significantly important in the second act. The play seems to be an hilarious comedy and all is still joyous at intermission. Although put-upon, slighted Gidger is the only one to be sensing danger.
Act two, a longish one, is still to come and in it the hilarity vanishes. That great machine is printing out the future decades, the ways in which these five characters will be remembered in 1990, and the comic tone is gone from the play. The laughs are few or ironic (Gidger’s dog, a marvelous off-stage character who appears only at the beginning of act one, is the subject of many, wrongly attributed, typed pages.)
Thus, the whole tone of the play shifts to darkness – that comes after the violet hour? One becomes confused in this act as to the playwright’s intent. The future is not pretty. Gidger finds himself valiantly singing “Que Sera, sera” and wondering where the song comes from.
The future is not what was planned, not understood by future writers of this 1919 present.
The five actors, still trapped on stage in 1919 but having to face what the century will make of them, could give up, but they don’t. In the end, they are trooping off to see a 1919 play, the lost tickets for which the play began; a play in which they will know the ending when the play begins with the maid coming in to put flowers on the coffee table, but determined to enjoy it anyway.
And they hurry off not to miss the curtain. Herein probably lies the play’s theme.
This has been a difficult play to describe, the mood and tone shift from act one to act two having jolted, as probably the author intended. However, for me, the second act was too cluttered, needing streamlining. The author is talented, having written such moving scripts as Three Days of Rain, and director Barry Edelstein has seen that his actors present the play with grace, agility, even poignancy, as well as all the hilarity.
But the play in the second act tries to give us too much, a bit like the character Denny with his enormous script.
However, it is well worth seeing for its talented cast and excellent staging, but it is not an easy play to untangle despite all the talent that has gone into its making.