"The Violet Hour" at Renaissance rides strong second act to redemption
For a play that is, in some measure, about time, the first act – which was only an hour long – seemed like it took a day and a half, wandering around aimlessly without any kind of purpose or determination.
The second act, however, came roaring to life with unmatched comedy and equally unmatched drama that made "The Violet Hour" at Renaissance Theaterworks a must see this season. The bifurcation of this Richard Greenberg piece is stunning in contrast and makes the effort of sitting through the first act a worthwhile endeavor.
There are six characters in this play. John (Neil Brookshire), a young Princeton graduate, is starting a publishing business with a loan from his father. Gidger (David Flores) is John's tightly wound, prim and proper assistant. Jessie Brewster (Marti Gobel) is a black singer, obviously based on the famous Josephine Baker. Denis (Nicholas Harazin) is a classmate of John's and an aspiring novelist. And finally there is Rosamund (Cara Johnston) who is the heiress to a meat packing fortune.
If you are counting, you see there are only five character descriptions. The sixth character in this production is time itself. Not a glance back, but a glance forward from April 1, 1919, the eight hours of the day leading to "violet hour, that wonderful New York hour when the evening's about to reward you for the day. That violet violet light you walk between that hastens you places," as Denis says.
John runs a publishing house, but has borrowed only enough money to publish one book.
His college pal Denis has written an opus that is stored in several crates in John's ramshackle and paper-drenched office, who contends that he doesn't have enough money to even print such a long book which he describes as "not a finished thing."
The other contender is an autobiography by Jessie. To complicate John's decision is the fact the he, a white man, and Jessie, neither white nor a man, are secret lovers. Their affair is passionate and full of the kind of emotion that come only when you are behaving badly behind closed doors.
Into this conflict comes Rosamund, who is in love with Denis, but whose wealthy father won't approve of this match unless Denis shows some prospects for success – ergo his demand that his friend publish his novel.
An unordered machine that spews pages without any kind of input shows up in the office driving the flighty Gidger absolutely mad. At the end of the first act, he discovers that the willy nilly flock of paper is actually a book, a book that is the history of the 20th century.
Ah, the future, in ink.
There is a profound temptation to ask yourself what the heck this play is about as you walk out for the intermission. Coming back, however, it grabs and holds you with laughs and tears galore.
When the curtain rises, we see Gidger and John deep in concentration reading this frightening book. We are off and running as Flores, one of the funniest and most accomplished actors in town, joins John in a quick dash of dialogue from the prescient discoveries in this book. Gidger feels the stress and what follows is one of the funniest scenes you'll see this year.
Gidger: I know, let's go somewhere, you and I. Let's leave these pages and go to a bar or somewhere – where we can drink and spout philosophy and be terribly gay. (John laughs) Why are you laughing?
John: A word you used.
Gidger: What word?
Gidger: I'm flummoxed.
John: It doesn't mean what you think.
Gidger: I think it does.
John: It means something else.
John: Late-mid century at the latest
John: Homosexual, chiefly male.
Gidger: Gay means homosexual, chiefly male?
Gidger: Then what word means gay?
John: As far as I can tell there is none…
Gidger: But how can that be?
John: As far as I can tell, it's no longer needed. Lacking a word, the quality disappears.
Watching Flores try to understand this particular thing from the future is worth the price of admission all by itself. But the story – and the moving parts – don't stop there.
Perhaps the most poignant moment comes when Denis stands downstage while John reads a letter he's written. The story Denis tells is not just tragi-comedy. It's outright tragic, and John, who is reading along while Denis gives the audience the contents of the letter, is almost overcoming when it ends.
There is no sense in spoiling the eventual outcome. But rest assured that this cast is marvelous. Both Brookshire and Johnston are new to me, and I hope that they find a great deal more work on Milwaukee stages. Harazin has made himself one of the most popular young actors in Chicago. And Gobel, always one of my favorites, is at the top of her game in a complicated and complex role.
"The Violet Hour," written by a Pulitzer Prize nominee for drama, is yet another time-bending play currently running in Milwaukee. "Bloomsday" opened at Next Act Theatre Friday night, presenting a more clear cut trip back in time.
Maybe it's easier to look back than to look forward.
"The Violet Hour" runs through April 30 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
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