Richard Greenberg’s latest play is about living off–camera
What would you do if you could know how your actions today would affect history, how the ripple caused by one choice would resonate over decades, even a century? If you could know the result of what you did today, would you make a different choice?
It’s a topic that has proven endless fascinating for authors like Jack Finney, whose “Time and Again” and other stories explore this topic, always in the guise of science fiction. It’s an appealing subject because as humans we like to think that, no matter how insignificant our lives may seem, we can have an impact on history, that we can leave a mark when we’re finally dead.
The topic has a darker side, however, as it is potentially a symptom of corrupt self-involvement that allows us to think that one small action on our part can alter the course of history. The rub—and the dramatic potential—comes from the fact that as humans we have to make choices based on what we know in the present and, much as we’d like to, we cannot control the future. That’s where issues of belief and accepting the consequences of our actions come into play. If we could know the future, would we still believe in the same way?
This question is at the heart of Richard Greenberg’s engaging and gently entertaining play, “The Violet Hour,” currently at the Biltmore. Mr. Greenberg tells the story of John Pace Seavering, who in 1919 is a veteran of the Great War and has returned to New York to set up shop as a publisher. He must choose between two manuscripts for his first effort—a memoir of his African American lover, the singer Jessie Brewster, and the epic, ungainly novel by his Princeton friend Denis McCleary. At the outset, the play is a fairly straightforward drama, until Pace’s assistant, Gidger, announces the arrival of a strange machine. The play takes a surreal turn as the machine starts spitting out pages of books at the end of the 20th century, many of which coincidentally, concern the fates, at times tragic, of the characters involved.
That’s pretty much the story, but behind it is a wonderful send-up of the practice of literary criticism and the ways in which the writing of history is always filtered through the sensibilities of the people writing it. When the actions of people in 1919 are analyzed through the lens of the 1990s, the dichotomy between what the original creators intended and what the interpreters aver becomes quite satiric. Yet, Mr. Greenberg handles all this adroitly; his satire is more nudging than clawing.
Those of us who spend our time analyzing, criticizing, and reviewing are taken to task for the kind of egoism that comes from interpretation rather than knowledge. For example, it’s implied that Denis and Pace have had a homosexual relationship, whether or not it has ever been consummated. The two men in 1919 are only aware of it as a subtext that provides tension in their relationship. It is not overt. Yet the critic whose pages come spewing out of the machine from 80 years later has built a whole thesis around the elaborate and fully expressed sexual relationship between the two men.
One of the charms of this piece is watching the living people reviewing their interpreted lives. As the crush of knowledge from the future begins to overwhelm Pace and the other characters, a choice has to be made: Does one live for history, or does one live for one’s life? More importantly, if “the truth” as one knows it can be reshaped and altered to the point where it is unrecognizable, how can an individual respond?
In this, Greenberg returns to one of the themes of “Take Me Out.” We alone know the truth about ourselves, and while there may be public consequences of our actions, to be fully who we are, we must embrace ourselves. The alternative is madness. It is, perhaps, a simplistic theme, and yet it is distinctly relevant in the context of our media-drenched culture where so many things seem to be done for the camera, where the human act of being has been replaced by performance.
The cast is wonderful. Robert Sean Leonard as Pace is beautifully present and focused throughout. Leonard is a master of finding the perfect pitch for a character, from the physical to the vocal, and though Pace is the least dramatic of any of the characters, Leonard creates a riveting performance that makes Pace the true emotional and intellectual center of the play. His grounded and engaging performance is the perfect counterpoint to the near melodrama of some of the other characters, yet as is consistent with Leonard’s other work, there is a real humanity about the performance that adds a richness that goes beyond what’s in the script.
As Jesse, Robin Miles is lovely. Her performance is fluid and perfectly mannered, and her costumes by Jane Greenwood are smashing. As Denis, Scott Foley is strong, particularly given the wide range he’s asked to play. It’s a subtle and effecting performance. Dagmara Dominczyk, as Denis’ fiancé Rosamund, is graceful and sharp as a character who deals with bouts of depression.
Mario Cantone as Gidger has been given the thankless task of playing a gay man who in 1919 doesn’t really know he’s gay in a contemporary way. Cantone is always funny, but he’s doing the same “fag shtick” that he does all the time. Though the performance is a caricature, it’s not particularly offensive, but one can’t help wondering whether or not Cantone is capable of more.
The direction by Evan Yionoulis is generally good. There should be more tension between Pace and Denis, or at least the script seems to indicate more than was evident on stage. The set by Christopher Barreca is terrific, and the lighting by Donald Holder is sophisticated—particularly when rendering the twilight “Violet Hour” that the play is named for.