Stop the Presses

Richard Greenberg asks a simple but intriguing question in his play The Violet Hour, now onstage at Dallas Theater Center. Given a peek into the future, would any of us take an existential do-over and alter the decisions we made early in life?

Charles Dickens used the same device in A Christmas Carol to remake Ebenezer Scrooge. It's The Time Machine and The Twilight Zone and Back to the Future. Characters, grappling with the notion of free will versus que sera, sera, go with the second chance, rewriting some little chapter of their life stories to ensure a happier ending.

That's pretty much what Greenberg does in his play, taking a little too long to get to the giddy finale by overwriting both the first and second acts. Unlike real life, scripts can easily be rewritten, and this one, straining under unnecessary conversation, begs for a heavy edit.

The central character is John Pace Seavering, a slim, sleek-haired young Princeton grad starting his own Manhattan publishing firm in 1919. He's just back from "The Great War," hopeful that the best years of his life lie ahead. "The century is so young, and all the worst things have happened," he says, voice ringing with certainty.

But he can afford to publish only one book as his inaugural title. From hundreds of manuscripts, John narrows his choices to two: either his best friend Denis McCleary's shapeless, rambling novel titled The Violet Hour (delivered in three crates of disconnected, handwritten notes); or the juicy life story of his own lady love, Jessie Brewster, a famous black chanteuse 14 years his senior.

It's a Hobson's choice for John. Denis begs his friend to pick his book, not on literary merit, but because he's wildly in love with Rosamund Plinth, a troubled heiress whose father will support marriage plans only if wastrel Denis is a published author. Rosamund hints to John that she'll commit suicide if he makes the wrong move. But John's own romance is at stake. Swept into the sexy taboo of an interracial affair, he doesn't want to lose Jessie by rejecting her autobiography. He senses that either book could make him the hottest new literary star or the fastest failure. Whichever one he puts in print, he'll crush the dreams of someone he loves.

A literal deus ex machina arrives in the form of a mysterious printing press (chugging away just offstage) that starts spewing pages of books from 30, 50, 80 years in the future. In them are biographical details about John's later life and his impact on the authors he will discover. More than one star novelist, he learns, will die of alcoholism. His secret affair with Jessie will be the subject of speculation and criticism decades hence. And Denis and Rosamund...what happens to them will be a much-chronicled American tragedy. (Substitute the names F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and you know the rest of the real story, if not Greenberg's version of it.)

Nice plot, but it takes The Violet Hour more than an hour to turn into a real page-turner. The first act unfolds in frustratingly talky and shapeless scenes interrupted by the best character, John's fey assistant Gidger, popping like a swishy jack-in-the-box in and out of the towering office set's enormous double doors. The playwright's hints at the reason for the prescient printing press aren't subtle either. "I need a crystal ball," John moans as he agonizes over which book to publish. "If only I could know..." By the second act, Gidger at last has persuaded John to read his destiny in the reams of paper stacked everywhere. "How famous am I?" John asks. And oh, yes, "The Great War" turns out to be only the first in a series.

Finding out which book John chooses and what happens to the other four characters takes more than another hour (Rod Serling's Twilight Zone did all this, and better, too, in "Printer's Devil," a 1963 episode starring Burgess Meredith). Not sure whether to err on the side of tragedy or comedy, Greenberg makes only a halfhearted attempt to comment on the dumbing down of American arts and letters between the Lost Generation and the Harry Potter era. He even resorts to a cliché discussion of the word "gay." The new meaning is a big shock for the tres gay Gidger, who slips into late-20th-century slang in protest. "This is so bogus!" he says. And "Give me my props." Gidger, sadly, turns out to be the one character who won't get any props from the lit crowd. His dog, he's chagrined to find out, will become the star, a literary muse on par with the Algonquin cat.

The Violet Hour was Greenberg's next play to debut in New York after his award-winning Take Me Out (the one with the gay baseball player and nude locker room scene). That production was beset with casting problems. Jasmine Guy freaked out during a preview and quit the role of Jessie. Felicity stud Scott Foley was a too-muscular Denis. Critics offered only tepid praise.

Reviewed at a preview, DTC's production, directed by David Kennedy, the theater's new associate director, sports one firecracker hot performance--Matthew Boston as Gidger--and two that are warmly received: Chris Henry Coffey as Denis, and Dallas actress Jessica D. Turner as the unstable Rosamund. Playing jazz singer Jessie, Christen Simon comes across calm and cool when she needs to be hot and bothered. And in the leading role of John, homely-handsome Matthew Floyd Miller, eyes deeply set in two dark shadows under a heavy brow, never convinces us that he's a brilliant son of privilege. Poised in a half-crouch, Miller looks tense and unsure of himself, as if, given the chance to do it all over again, he probably wouldn't have taken this part.

"American Stages," a seven-part series about the history and cultural contributions of America's regional theaters, airs every Thursday, March 3 through April 14, on National Public Radio's afternoon news program All Things Considered. Addison's WaterTower Theatre will be featured in the March 31 segment titled "Theater Shape and Design," which talks about how some theaters reshape their performance spaces to make theater a more intimate experience for the audience. Hear it on KERA-90.1 FM.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner