by Margaret Croyden

"The Violet Hour," a Purple Play

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"The Violet Hour"
by Richard Greenberg
The Manhattan Theatre Club
The Biltmore Theater
West 45th Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden November 24, 2003

Richard Greenberg, fresh from his prize-winning "Take Me Out" has written what was expected to be another provocative play. But this time he has struck out. Not that "The Violet Hour" had no possibilities; it is simply too ambitious and too overbearing. The playwright has tackled philosophical ideas and literary allusions that add up to a talking marathon rather than a dynamic theater piece. The plot is so strangely convoluted and difficult to follow that one is reluctant to explain it. O.K. I'll try.

A young publisher (Robert Sean Leonard) with limited finances must choose between publishing the memoirs of his lover a black blues singer Jessie Brewster (Robin Miles), or a long novel by friend Denis McCleary (Scott Foley), whose marriage to an heiress Rosamund Plinth (Dagmara Dominczyk) depends on the success of the novel. In the midst of this odd plot, a strange machine in the back room suddenly and mysteriously releases tons of paper that foretells the future of the leading characters. What happens to them, according to the machine, is unpredictable and disastrous: their lives will end in tragedy.

With all this hocus-pocus, one wonders what is the author's point? One waits for some underlying message to emerge at the end (although many people seemed uninterested and walked out after the first act), but nothing is revealed. Perhaps this is a play about destiny and the inevitability of tragedy and disappointment in one's life--a common enough theme. Perhaps this is about the absurdity of life and the futility of planning and hoping, but Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about that years ago. Is this about people's foolish ambitions unaware that their destiny has already been proscribed? If
there is some deep meaning, it is simply unclear, or so simplistic that we end up with the playwright's philosophical immaturity, the over written dialogue, the failed attempt at clever lines--all leading to tedium.

Some critics are sure that the story is about the literary greats, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Woolf. But nothing in the script quite matches the lives of these authors. Maybe the author filled in some of the critics about his intentions. But don't look for any such allusions in the text. At any rate, the play may have had a chance, if the playwright was less impressed with himself, his language, and his attempt at wisdom.

The production does little to relieve the dreariness of the play. The acting is low key and monotonous. Robert Sean Leonard in the main part has to carry the entire play. Which he cannot do; this is a hard job; he lacks the charm and power need for the role. But the character as written is unbelievable, so it is hardly this fine actor's fault. The rest of the cast have poor speech and poor voices (particularly the women); their energy is low, and seem unsure about what they are doing, but Scott Foley is better than most; he has good stage presence. The role of the publishers's assistant played by the ever campy Mario Cantone is over the top. His screaming, hysterical queen is overdone and stereotypical. The direction by Evan Yionoulisis unremarkable.

Too bad the Manhattan Theater Club had the misfortune to open the newly decorated Biltmore theater with a poor production. The theater, however, is certainly an improvement: the seats are comfortable, the ladies bathroom has plenty of stalls (always a problem in Broadway houses), and the atmosphere in the theater is fresh and attractive. But please, Lynn Meadow: help your talented author to control his lofty intentions and write a theatrical play and not a philosophical essay. "The Violet Hour" --'that time in New York full of promise' is full of purple prose. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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