The violet hour is neither day nor night, but a lush moment. It’s fleeting; you can’t grasp it, hold it still. Its tenuous nature makes the ache: the fragility of ice, the first inhalation of night-blooming jasmine.
On April Fools’ Day, 1919, aspiring young publisher John Pace Seavering faces an increasingly serious dilemma. A pal from his Princeton days, Denis McCleary, has popped by Seavering’s Manhattan office to inquire about his opinion of McCleary’s sprawling saga of a novel or, as Seavering puts it, “a grouping of pages.” McCleary is desperate to have his work published so as to impress the wealthy father of the young woman, Rosamund Plinth, whom he hopes to marry.
Four of the five characters stand for 20th-century giants. The exuberant writer Denis McLeary (Joe Schwalb) and his exhilarating and exhausting heiress girlfriend Rosamund Plinth (Julia Wermuth) are essentially F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. John Pace Seavering (Henry Ballesteros) is Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and other writers. Jessie Brewster (Danielle Goodman) is Josephine Baker, the singer-dancer-actress whose once-scandalous stage shows led her to become the first African-American to star in a major movie, integrate a concert hall and become famous around the world.
Then there’s poor Gidger (Martin Bergquist). No one. Or perhaps Everyman.
Playwright Richard Greenberg’s portfolio includes the academic trifecta of Princeton, Harvard and Yale, universities he attended with honors while accruing degrees in creative writing and playwrighting. Author of dozens of works, he’s best known for his Tony Award-winning drama, Take Me Out, about a gay professional baseball player, as well as renowned dramas Eastern Standard and Three Days of Rain.
This two-act gem, first produced in 2002 by the South Coast Repertory in southern California and then transferred to Broadway in 2003, is a masterpiece of cunning and deception that hearkens to the works of Tom Stoppard in its complexity and clever construction.
Engaging, intriguing and intoxicating, The Violet Hour is an existential excursion into a panoply of perplexing problems, including loyalty, ambition, personal identity and the concept of time itself. Directors Max Ginkel and Joe Schwalb ensures that Greenberg’s intricately layered musings are available to the audience through the pinpoint performances of their stellar cast and whimsical technical effects in this HHS premiere.
Ginkel and Schwalb pacing are steady as they guides their performers through two radically different acts of comparable, one-hour lengths. The first act is as uproariously funny as the second act is starkly and poignantly serious, an abrupt turnabout handled adroitly by playwright Greenberg.
Marty Bergquist shines as the dutiful yet defiant subordinate Gidger, whether jousting with clever wordplay or immersing himself into the avalanche of papers filling Seavering’s office. Gidger unsuccessfully introduces guests to Seavering’s address after they’ve already entered, and struggles mightily to seize control of his under-achieving life, which is so dismal that his boss doesn’t even know whether Gidger is his assistant’s first name or last.
There’s also polished interpretation by Henry Ballesteros as the indecisive publisher. As Greenberg paints an ambiguous portrait of the aspiring lad with big dreams, Ballesteros shapes his portrayal within self-imposed boundaries that only adds to the mystery of his character in dazzling fashion. He’s counter-balanced by Joe Schwalb’s riveting performance as the impetuous, manic and desperate McCreary. The subtle references to a possibly deeper relationship between the two college chums serve to enhance each actor’s portrayal.
Danielle Goodman is simply wonderful as the world-weary songstress. Beyond her beautifully articulated words, she adds to Jessie’s own surprising background with each nuance and gesture of a turned head or stoic expression in beguiling style. Julia Wermuth delights as the upper-crust Rosamund, who rebels against her father’s planned marriage for her to another wealthy scion with her wildly romantic passion for the penniless writer McCreary.
The Violet Hour, which takes its title from McCreary’s would-be novel, is dense in its myriad possibilities and well worth your attention. Even at that, you’ll likely leave scratching your head and contemplating a return to learn what you might have missed originally.
Tonight is your last chance to see this amazing show!
HHS Black Box Theatre