By Vicki Paris Goodman
I sometimes grow weary of characters who “like to hear themselves talk.” And to that extent, The Violet Hour, by no fault of cast or director, bogs down in places. So shame on playwright Richard Greenberg for his self-indulgent dialogue. Still, The Violet Hour has much to appreciate.
In 1919 Manhattan, the well-educated and ambitious young John Pace Seavering (Adam Hale) has inherited enough money to start a small publishing company. In a cluttered office– official warning to the chaos-averse– crowded with stacks of manuscripts, John and his employee Gidger (Sean Gray) seem to do little more than entertain themselves with minutiae and reflections on the fact they have yet to publish any books.
John and Gidger couldn’t be more unalike. As portrayed by Hale, John is centered and unflappable, whereas Gray’s “type A” Gidger is easily distressed and finds something to complain about in every minor occurrence– from not knowing where to put a newly delivered manuscript to the arrival of an unexpected client.
Gidger has many of the best comic lines in the play, and the enormously talented Gray delivers them with physicality and flair. In fact, Gidger is so articulate, clever and sharp-witted that we wonder how in the world he came to be underling to a young upstart like John. No matter, the relationship is somehow endearing, mostly due to John’s seemingly unconditional acceptance of Gidger’s quirks, which are abundant.
The first act is mostly a display of rhetoric and verbal sparring until John’s best friend Denny (Alex Walters) shows up to inquire as to when John will publish his book. Denny is in earnest, as his fiancé, Rosamund (Caitlyn Tella), a wealthy heiress, will not be allowed to marry him unless John agrees to publish his book.
Requiring three full-size packing boxes for transport, Denny’s book has to be many thousands of pages long. The subject matter is never revealed to the audience, but one can only imagine the tedious stream-of-consciousness that Denny’s volumes must surely contain.
Even though John has decided he can afford to begin his business by publishing one and only one book, he resists giving Denny a definite answer. We assume John’s indecision stems from the sheer enormity of the tome, only to find out that John is grappling with a monumental decision of which Denny is unaware.
Enter Jessie (Doshanna Bell), John’s secret African-American love interest, who has written a book of her own that she desperately wants John to publish.
John’s dilemma: Disappoint his girlfriend or ruin his friend’s chance for happiness with the only woman he has ever loved.
This is where The Violet Hour becomes The Twilight Zone live.
A mysterious machine arrives that spits out page after page detailing future events. Some suspension of disbelief is required, as there is no explanation given as to why John buys into the prophesied events hook, line and sinker. But he does and, as a result, his decision as to which book to publish eventually becomes crystal clear.
Most of the second act is quite dark, as the future is played out in vignettes that challenge the actors and dramatically change the play’s tone. Walters gives a heart-rending monologue, and Tella’s Rosamund becomes eerily fragile. Both actors do an amazing job.
As Jessie, Bell is a bit stilted, but relaxes to more effectively manage her role in later scenes.
The play wraps up in such accelerated fashion that it’s hard to keep up with the story. Playwright Greenberg might have done a better job here, as well. In fact, he could well have edited out some of the early dialogue and taken a little more time at the conclusion.
The entire production plays out in John’s office, a beautifully detailed set designed by Greg Fritsche. Costume designer Donna Fritsche’s early twentieth-century outfits are exquisite. Sharyn Case’s direction is right on the money.
The Violet Hour questions the certainty of the future, whether or not it would be worthwhile to know our destiny, and what we might choose to do about it if we did. How interesting those questions are is certainly debatable, but The Violet Hour tackles them with a pretty entertaining and stylish approach.
The Violet Hour continues in the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through August 7. General admission tickets are $22; $20 for seniors. Student tickets are $12 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees (some Sundays only) at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. in Long Beach. Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org.