Total Rating: 
April 7, 2017
April 30, 2017
Renaissance TheaterWorks
Theater Type: 
Studio Theater
Theater Address: 
158 North Broadway
Running Time: 
2 hrs
Richard Greenberg
Suzan Fete

There’s more than meets the eye in Richard Greenberg’s riveting The Violet Hour, in a production by Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks. The characters seem quite normal, as they come in and out of a publishing house in New York City in 1919. At the center of things is John Pace Seavering (Neil Brookshire), who’s just starting a publishing career after his recent graduation from Princeton. In his office, almost overrun by paper (mostly unsolicited manuscripts by would-be authors), Seavering has just enough of Daddy’s money to publish one book.

This is probably unfair, expecting Seavering to hit a home run on his first turn at bat. Meanwhile, Seavering’s assistant, Gidger (David Flores), strives to keep things orderly. The opening scene has Gidger scurrying around the office, complaining about dealing with reams of paper and “why did I go to college?” – type rhetoric. (Unfortunately, Flores pitches his over-the-top performance too far. The results are amusing at first but grow tiresome long before intermission. Still, he succeeds in making Gidger a memorable character.)

Brookshire, as Seavering, is tall, handsome and perfectly groomed, as one would expect of a lad coming from a family with “old money.” His stiff-upper-lip attitude is a bit off-putting to the others. Although Seavering tries to find the sensible middle ground in every situation, this becomes difficult with an old Princeton roommate (Nicholas Harazin). Denis, Seavering’s friend, has written an opus called “The Violet Hour” and tells Seavering (and us) that the novel is named for a welcome time at sunset that rewards people for making it through another day.

To emphasize his point about the “violet hour,” the near-penniless Denis has caught the fancy of a wealthy heiress, Rosamund Plinth (Cara Johnston). She enters, wearing an exquisitely expensive lavender-colored gown and matching hat. One of the play’s most memorable scenes is when Rosamund stands near a stretch of windows. Behind her is a gauzy rendering of the New York skyline at dusk, where Noelle Stomack’s lovely lighting bathes her in rich purple hues.

In 2003, Greenberg’s play had a regional opening before the Manhattan Theater Club produced it in Broadway’s Biltmore Theatre. In the Renaissance Theaterworks production, Cara Johnston does an excellent job in her underwritten role as Rosamund. When finally left alone with Seavering, she tells him that her father is determined to wed her to someone more “appropriate” to their social status. But he might change his mind if Denis is having a book published.

This puts Seavering in a terrible spot, as he’s already having his arm twisted by another would-be author, his Negro mistress, Jessie Brewster (Marti Gobel). From the moment she enters, Gobel commands the stage with her sometimes haughty and dismissive attitude. Although they give it a good try, the “romance” between her and Seavering seems preposterous, to say the least. Like Denis, he is wooing a woman he cannot have – at least, not in New York City in 1919.

The plot changes dramatically (no pun intended) with the arrival of a mysterious machine. Although it’s never seen by the audience, the machine starts pumping out pages from books published in the future. Seavering is annoyed by Gidger’s constant badgering about the important news emanating from the machine. However, after reading a few pages that Gidger basically shoves under his nose, he realizes that the writing on these pages is more than predictions. They contain facts pertaining to the societal changes coming soon (such as the Great Depression). As they begin to read in earnest, Seavering and Gidger don’t always put the pieces together. For instance, a seemingly oblivious Seavering wonders why so many of his Princeton classmates seem to be dying at such young ages.

Sometimes, the news is incredibly upbeat. Seavering learns that no matter which book he decides to publish, it will launch his successful and influential publishing career. One day, entire books will be written about him. Gidger, however, finds that history has ignored him. In a hilarious twist, Gidger learns that his pesky dog, Sir Launcelot, goes on to find fame and fortune. Gidger, however, is basically forgotten, “not even a footnote,” he observes, unhappily.

Author Greenberg raises some interesting questions, such as what would one do if they knew the future, and that history books don’t always get the facts right. Under Suzan Fete’s able direction, the Renaissance cast is more than up to the challenges that Greenberg poses.

adult themes
Neil Brookshire (John Pace Seavering); David Flores (Gidger); Marti Gobel (Jessie Brewster); Nicholas Harazin (Denis McCleary); Cara Johnston (Rosamund Plinth).
Set: Steve Barnes; Costumes: Jason Orlenko; Lighting: Noelle Stollmack; Sound: Joseph Cerqua and Morgan Lake.
Anne Siegel
Date Reviewed: 
April 2017