Richard Greenberg, author of the current Tony Award-winning best play "Take Me Out," is represented again this season with "The Violet Hour." This excellent, possibly even better, play has been given the honor to open the newly restored Biltmore Theater, home of the Manhattan Theater Company (MTC). Considering how meticulously the details of the Biltmore restoration have been treated, it is a pity that this worthy new play has not been as well treated. It is, in fact, seriously compromised by direction and casting.
I am sure that director Evan Yionoulis, who has an otherwise commendable history with Greenberg and MTC ("Three Days of Rain," "The American Plan"), has had her worries keeping up with Greenberg’s fanciful play as well as coping with unforseen cast changes. Sadly her direction appears merely perfunctory.
Two significant women’s roles had to be re-cast: one late in production rehearsals and one during previews. Laura Benanti, whose departure for "artistic reasons," and Jasmine Guy, whose illness forced her to withdraw, were replaced by Dagmara Dominczyk and Robin Miles. That both of these otherwise fine actors would turn in less than compelling performances with such brief preparation time is perhaps understandable. But it is as unfortunate as it is damaging. Hopefully, they will improve over the course of the run.
"The Violet Hour," whose title comes from a line in the play, "the time of day when the evening is about to reward you for the day," concerns itself with the destiny of people whose lives are whimsically determined by a fantastical event. Although the play is set in 1919, Greenberg’s plot device allows this group of romantically involved people to see bits of their future. It’s a metaphysical speculation, but Greenberg makes it work. We can always count on Greenberg’s plots to challenge us. The great thing about his complexly conceived characters is that when they speak, we listen.
Robert Sean Leonard, who has distinguished himself in one role after another ("The Invention of Love," "Long Day’s Journey into Night"), for the first time appears slightly insecure and ungrounded in his role as John Pace Seavering. A recent Princeton graduate, he has installed himself as publisher in an over-stocked loft where submissions sit in massive piles. The impressive bleak setting is designed by Christopher Barreca.
Filled with enthusiasm by the possibilities of the present and the options he will undoubtedly have in the future, he knows that he has only enough money to publish one book. Conflicted, he is unable to decide which one of the two texts to which he has committed will be published first. One is a gargantuan novel by his college buddy Denis McLeary (a well-sustained performance by Scott Foley); publication, for Denis, will determine whether he is worthy to marry heiress Rosamund Plinth (Dominczyk). The other manuscript is an autobiography of a popular American-American diva (Miles) with whom Seavering is currently having a hot and heavy affair.
Into their lives (in an unseen outer office) lands a fax-like machine that begins to discharge reams of printed pages from novels and editorials unquestionably written in the future. Its significance stimulates Seavering, who believes he is destined for greatness, even as it unsettles Gidget (Mario Cantone), Seavering’s flamboyant assistant. Notwithstanding Cantone’s unnerving, over-the-top performance (Greenberg says he wrote the part for Cantone; go figure), Gidget and Seavering are able to see a chronicle of his future successes, as well as the outcome of Denis’s marriage and his own affair. There is the expected urgency of all those entwined to manipulate the future. And all of this without any mention of Gidget’s otherwise notable, but undocumented contributions.
You always get more than you bargained for with a Greenberg play, and this one is no exception. Despite its production shortcomings, "The Violet Hour" is a dazzling mix of the philosophic, the comedic, and the sense that we should heed the present if we want to take charge of the future.
In 1998, Greenberg’s "Safe as Houses" had its world premiere at McCarter under the direction of Emily Mann. At the time Greenberg said in an interview with this writer that he came to McCarter because he was unhappy with the audiences at the Manhattan Theater Club. Now he has another reason to be unhappy with them. Would that he had once again brought his new play to Mann: it might have had a better start.
The Violet Hour, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street, New York. $26-$76. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
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