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This Snide of Paradise

The Jazz Age Gets Rewritten As It’s Written

PAPER CHASE: (From left) Ian Lockhart, Bruce Nelson, and Timothy Pabon read the future In The Violet Hour.

By John Barry | Posted 11/16/2005

The point of entry of Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour is the Jazz Age, when the New York literary scene burst with young American writers obsessed with their cultural self-definition. That set in motion a long line of Americans who were as concerned about their place in the general scheme of things as they were in the books they were writing. If that sounds a little heavy, relax—Violet Hour is a funny, fast-paced comedy that strikes a few well-aimed barbs at our own somewhat inflated sense of self-consciousness.

For the first act’s first half, the play feels like a period piece. Publisher John Seavering (Ian Lockhart) is starting out in the business, but he already has two friends begging him to publish their work. One, Denis McCleary (Timothy Pabon), has dropped three crates of manuscript in his office and is begging for a contract—so he can make his literary reputation and marry Rosamund Plinth (Megan Anderson), a meatpacking heiress. The other person tugging at Seavering’s sleeves is his lover, Jessie Brewster (Deidra LaWan Starnes), an African-American jazz singer who wants to publish her memoirs.

Things get more interesting thanks to a strange, silver machine—a cross between a jukebox and a copier—that spits out visions of the future faster than the play’s characters are able to create it. Seavering’s assistant Gidger (Bruce Nelson) finds it standing in the hallway outside their garret office. When they begin to shuffle through the reams of paper the machine spews out, they realize—to their horror and fascination—that these are late-20th-century appraisals of their own era. And the weight of the plot falls on the penniless publisher and his trusty assistant who, after reading about the rise and fall of two aspiring writers, must decide whether or not to let history run its course.

Greenberg isn’t shy about his characters’ real-life sources. Seavering is a stand-in for Maxwell Perkins, the Charles Scribner’s Sons publisher to Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Rosamund and Denis are archetypal Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald characters. And Jessie has parallels to Josephine Baker.

The rest of the play is a gradual descent into insanity that the Rep players negotiate beautifully. The papers keep piling up, the plot angles and time lines grow more convoluted and intertwined, but the actors revel in the chaos without losing any sense of subtlety. Anderson, Starnes, and Pabon don’t give their characters time enough to drown in their flapper mannerisms—very quickly they seize control of the stage as they put the screws on the hapless Seavering.

As the story shifts time zones and contextual references, it becomes a little unclear what exactly the central conflict of Greenberg’s play may be. On the other hand, the sparkling dialogue makes it all worth it, and the play’s best moments spring up out of nowhere—when, after people reading through reams of papers from the future, phrases from literary criticism and other elements of cultural newspeak begin to infect their crisp, spiked dialect.

And this witty, if somewhat clumsily hobbled-together, conceit would go nowhere if it weren’t for the performances. These characters are all a little crazy, most based on real-life figures, but their appeal is in their preening attempts to get the shades to fall on them at the right angles for posterity. In Pabon’s performance, Denis isn’t so much of an egoist as someone who is intensely delighted with what his own next move will be—whether that means drinking himself to death or publishing his masterpiece. As Rosamund, Anderson feeds on the flapper prototype, but her character’s charming self-absorption gives the Zelda legend a new twist: If she’s a little insane, that only colors her almost childish desire to occupy the spotlight. Jessie, meanwhile, is a poised, seductive jazz diva who is obsessively self-conscious about her role as a Jazz Age African-American woman. Nelson’s Gidger feels like a conventional comic sidekick at first and then, gradually, after poring through the pages from the future, he begins a series of hilarious deconstructionist rants.

Comedy isn’t Rep Stage’s only game, but under the hand of director Kasi Campbell, the Columbia theater has come up with another well-paced, funny play with shimmering, thoughtful moments. A little like the characters themselves, the actors wait for the light to fall just right—and when it does, The Violet Hour turns into a truly fascinating look at the way writers try to place their stamps on the world around them.

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