The Violet Hour

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Richard Greenberg’s plays are tight, polished little machines, clever constructions that tease the minds of attentive audiences and reward that attention with a flurry of details, all seemingly essential to solving the puzzle or puzzles at the center of his scripts. Sometimes, though, Greenberg’s games can seem mere tricks, bits of literary legerdemain meant to make the plays appear more profound than they are.

In Three Days of Rain, the last Greenberg work produced at Steppenwolf (in 1999), the playwright tells the story of two generations of malcontents backward: the first act paints a portrait of the younger generation–two unhappy sons and the miserable daughter of famous architects–and the second their troubled, gifted parents. The technique is beguiling but also a little cruel: for a full hour Greenberg supplies us with answers to questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.

In The Violet Hour Greenberg also throws a lot of details at the audience, expecting us to put them all together but without supplying sufficient stakes. Set in 1919 on the fringes of the New York literary world, the play concerns John Pace Seavering, a young would-be publisher (ably played by peppy, preppy Josh Hamilton) fresh out of the army; his friend Denis McCleary, a talented but emotionally erratic Irish-American writer (an amusing Kevin Stark); and John’s sometime lover Jessie Brewster, an African-American singer (a role that gives the charismatic Ora Jones a chance to do several star turns). The young publisher has a cheap little office–at Steppenwolf an excuse for Robert Brill’s gorgeous set, all wood and glass and fading paint–and an amusing, efficient, whiny assistant, Gidger (Tim Hopper). But John has yet to publish a book.

None of the characters is an actual historical figure, but all are strongly suggestive of historical personages. Denis is a bit like F. Scott Fitzgerald–he even has a mentally unstable Zelda-like girlfriend–and a bit like Thomas Wolfe: the manuscript of Denis’s first novel fills several boxes, not unlike the leviathan Wolfe once delivered to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s. Meanwhile the young publisher resembles Perkins, though his source might also be New Directions founder James Laughlin.

Greenberg plays games with his story too. After having one character complain to another about how predictable most Broadway shows are, he introduces an annoyingly predictable conflict. Denis and Jessie have both written manuscripts. But John has money enough to publish only one of them. Which does he choose and whom does he lose, the friend or the lover? It’s a plot unworthy of a playwright as talented as Greenberg–but then we discover he’s just faking us out. A machine in John’s office begins spewing reams of paper that turn out to be manuscript pages from books that won’t be published for another 30, 40, 50 years. Suddenly Greenberg’s characters–smug proto-Jazz Agers, all of them convinced that nothing but prosperity and happiness lies ahead–are confronted with future horrors both personal and cultural.

A more literal-minded writer, an H.G. Wells or a Ray Bradbury, would use this device to ask, “How would knowledge of the future change these people?” But Greenberg uses the machine to crack open the assumed reality of his play and then bury his characters in facts about the future. The play’s second half is hilarious, as we watch these folks try to deal with the same information overload we face every day.

In fact information overload is another item in Greenberg’s bag of tricks: he routinely throws too many facts at an audience to be easily assimilated. And if you yearn for theater that both entertains and informs, you should know that Greenberg never really informs: all the information in his play turns out to be suspect because it’s delivered by flawed human beings who twist the facts, consciously or not, to suit their own needs.

When he isn’t adding data, Greenberg plays other tricks. The Violet Hour begins like a naturalistic work in the vein of Lanford Wilson or Arthur Miller. But then Greenberg pushes the play into a dreamlike world, as scenes repeat with variations or characters begin acting like 21st-century Americans or as if they’d died years earlier or were characters in a literary work. In fact, Greenberg writes in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov, who in some ways considered literature to be a game like his beloved chess. Though Lolita deals with pedophilia, its purpose is to create amusing little puzzles for the reader, built on the word games and writerly tricks produced by the claustrophobic mind of Humbert Humbert.

I sometimes get the same claustrophobic feeling from Greenberg’s plays. John is very much a man trapped in his own upper-class, well-educated world. As is brilliant but poor Denis: eager for success within this world, he can’t see that it won’t solve his drinking problem or give his fiancee emotional stability. Greenberg himself seems trapped in the world of glib, self-referential postmodern writing. Maybe that’s his point–that texts refer to nothing but themselves.

Of course Greenberg couldn’t be the pomo writer he is without being well-read. He also has great credentials: he graduated from Princeton magna cum laude in 1980 with a degree in English, spent a year in graduate school at Harvard studying literature, then transferred to Yale School of Drama to complete an MFA. Steppenwolf audiences adore this kind of pedigree–and to be honest, so do I. I love Greenberg for pleasing and flattering my inner Frazier–and hate him for it too. Terry Kinney’s polished production of this polished script only adds to my confusion: the show’s perfection makes Greenberg’s emotionally distant work even colder.

The Violet Hour includes a very telling scene. Denis delivers a monologue, a letter he wrote to a friend while drunk. Most playwrights would have the speaker appear drunk and deliver somewhat intelligible lines, but Greenberg has him read the text the way a future scholar might, inserting the word “unintelligible” whenever the writing gets too sloppy. This is hilarious, especially when the word “unintelligible” obscures the letter’s meaning, but it also distances us from character and text alike.

Greenberg’s incessant cleverness sometimes seems the intellectual equivalent of a check-kiting scheme. Each bit of brilliance is meant to cover up the fact that the previous bit didn’t quite pay off emotionally or dramatically. Greenberg may have the literary facility of a Nabokov, but for all his intellectual daring, his work lacks Nabokov’s warmth, his grounding in the bitter, bracing realities of everyday life.


Gift Theatre Company

at the Raven Theatre

Still, Greenberg’s game playing makes for interesting theater. The same cannot be said for 6, the Gift Theatre Company’s tiresome version of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Retelling Pirandello’s self-reflective story–about a rehearsal interrupted by the play’s characters, abandoned by their author but eager to finish their tales–this young company fails to retain either the intellectual headiness of the original or its emotional power. William Nedved’s adaptation is peppered with jokes about the Chicago theater scene and about Our Town being the play interrupted when the characters wander in. And maybe if director Jonathan Berry had been able to give the performances a greater sense of urgency, the cleverness of this approach would have been more compelling.

But I doubt it. Berry and company stumble at all the play’s key points: they don’t convince us we’re watching a rehearsal, they don’t make us care about the performers, and, most damning, they don’t move us when the characters finally tell their sorrowful story. The different layers of reality and styles of performance in the original are insufficiently distinguished here.

The show does contain a few bright spots. Even when her character is just sitting and listening to others talk, Mary Fons throws so much emotion into her performance that she’s riveting. Hillary Hensler wins us over with her subtle underplaying and the believable concern she shows for both her fellow actors and the characters. But when Pirandello’s play opened in Rome in 1921, it prompted riots. The closest thing to a riot this version provoked was a stampede to the exits after the final curtain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow, Kenny Mihlfried.