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A CurtainUp Review
The Violet Hour

It's that time -- that wonderful New York hour when the evening's about to reward you for that day
--- Denis (Denny) McCleary explaining the title for his colossus of a novel to his friend John Pace Seavering -- and by extension, the title for Richard Greenberg's play about a fateful day in their lives.
Robert Sean Leonard
Robin Miles and Robert Sean Leonard
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As the curtain rises -- and the beautifully restored Biltmore Theatre does indeed have a lovely red velvet curtain -- fledgling publisher John Pace Seavering and his assistant Gidger are, as the latter says "searching for a proverbial needle in a real haystack." What they're looking for is a pair of theater tickets that have gone missing in the manuscript cluttered, high-ceilinged office that has all the earmarks of being located in Manhattan's Flatiron district. The tickets are for Faintly the Heart, a hit play of the 1919 season which John's friend Denny, who arrives in the midst of the search, dismisses as a waste of time and typical of " the really big problem with the Broadway theater. . . you always know what's going to happen" -- something not true

Of course playwright Richard Greenberg, who uses Denny to administer that sly slap on the wrist of the hand that feeds him, is incapable of writing a play that's either predictable or a waste of time. The Violet Hour is no exception. It should solidify Greenberg 's reputation as one of our leading and most versatile dramatists and Robert Sean Leonard who plays Seavering as an actor who consistently tops his last fine performance with an even better one. Elegantly written and staged, and with its time frame just a few years removed from when the Biltmore first opened its doors, this is also an excellent choice to launch the theater's reopening under Manhattan Theatre Club's auspices.

Robert Sean Leonard
Budding publisher Robert Sean Leonard, caught in a paper storm
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Violet Hour, like Greenberg's wonderful Three Days of Rain, draws the audience into an intriguing puzzle. Three Days of Rain sent its characters travelling back int time to become and really understand their parents. In The Violet Hour he reverses the time travel and adds a sci-fi touch. With its characters forged from recognizable real people, Mr. Greenberg's latest play also has much in common with his under-appreciated The Dazzle. Thus John Pace Seavering, like the fabled editor Maxwell Perkins, has no creative talent in his own right but knows how to spot and nurture it in others. His lover, Jesse Brewster (Robin Miles) is a stand-in for Josephine Baker; his friend Denis McCleary (Scott Foley) and his lady love, Rosamund Plinth (Dagmara Dominczyk), represent two icons of the post World War I generation's literatti, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This being a work of imagination rather than a docudrama, the sprawling novel that not only needs a publisher but an astute editor to prune it into manageable shape is more reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel than any work by Fitzgerald. The grandiosity of the character also brings Wolfe to mind.

Gidger (Mario Cantone), while an important comic relief character in the play is the only one without the assured sense of living a life of some importance. He recognizes that he's unlikely to seed even a footnote or index listing in the annals of literary history.

Even more than most plays, this one poses the critic's dilemma about how much plot to detail without spoiling the element of surprise (shades of Denny's putdown of Faintly the Heart). Suffice it to say that the arrival of a surreal printing machine in Seavering's office on April 1st is not some April Fool's joke but a means for entertainingly and thoughtfully exploring men's desire to peek into and control their future and the way the world will view them. As baseball was a major departure of setting and subject for Greenberg, so is this venture into sci-fi. Unfortunately, while The Violet Hour, despite some bumps in the futuristic second act, is a smart, superbly written play, this New York premiere suffers from bad casting choices.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the replacements for the abrupt departures of the two female characters are the least of this problem. Dagmara Dominczyk is a charming and creditable Rosamund. Jasmine's Guy's departure in the middle of a preview performance gave Robin Miles her All About Eve opportunity and she has seized it with considerable warmth and flair.

The big casting missteps are Mario Cantone and Scott Foley who have been with the play all along. While Gidger has many of the play's funniest lines, Cantone seems bent on being another Mason Marzac (the financial adviser who falls madly in love with baseball in Take Me Out). But while O'Hare's Mason was hilarious, he stopped short of being distracting and annoyingly over the top. The same can't be said for Cantone who practically stamps his foot and demands "Look at me-- laugh--applaud " every time he enters the room. To Cantone's credit, he might come off better if director Evan Yionoulis, who usually has a good feel for Greenberg's work, had guided him to tone down the Big Shtick aspects of his performance. Scott Foley's problem is not that he hams it up but that he's simply not up to projecting the passion and ego his Denis McCleary calls for.

With two competent performances, and two that are just plain wrong, Robert Sean Leonard has to do all the heavy lifting. I could think of any number of actors who could have given him the support he deserves. Reg Roger and Peter Frechette, who so memorably portrayed the Collyer brothers in The Dazzle, could each play either role -- bringing out the subtlety of the Gidger's humor and the dash and grandiosity of Denis (and perhaps alternate as Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in True West).

The MTC production does have three other stars in this show to rival Robert Sean Leonard's work. They are the behind the scenes wizards, Christopher Barreca, Jane Greenwood and Donald Holder who are responsible for the authentic and striking set, costumes and lighting (the latter including a gorgeous violet sky!).

The performance problems notwithstanding, it doesn't take a time-traveling gizmo to predict that the The Violet Hour, like Mr. Greenberg's other plays, deserves and will have a long life in theaters around the world.

Take Me Out
The Dazzle
Three Days of Rain

Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Cast: Mario Cantone, Dagmara Dominczyk,Scott Foley, Jasmine Guy and Robert Sean Leonard.
Set Design: Christopher Barreca
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Darron West
Running time: 2hours plus intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St 212/239-6200
From 10/16/03 to 12/21/03; opening 11/06/03
Performance schedule through 11/30: Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 PM, Saturday at 2:00 PM & 8:00 PM, and Sunday at 2:00 PM & 7:00 PM. (no Saturday matinee on October 18 and no Sunday evening performance on November 23).
After 12/02: Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. -- $71.00, $66.00, & $51.02.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 7th press performance


©Copyright 2003, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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