Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Who’s the Most Predictable of All

I regret to say that there are a number of problems with Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour , and one of them is the theater it’s in. I’ve already lamented the Manhattan Theatre Club’s expansion into Broadway at the Biltmore as another dangerous example of nonprofit-theater “Broadwayitis.” In my view, the entire purpose and lifeblood of the uncommercial theater isn’t to become part of Broadway, but to offer a radical alternative to it.

I’ve had my say, so I won’t dwell on it. The folks at the Manhattan Theatre Club claim they’ve no intention of compromising their high standards at the Biltmore-and what could be better proof than their risky inaugural production of Richard Greenberg’s time-play, The Violet Hour ? Yes (though time will tell). But for me, Mr. Greenberg’s messy, overreaching drama is just the sort of nutty play that would have been much better off staged at one of Manhattan Theatre Club’s remaining, more modest theaters at City Center, where the glare of Broadway expectations don’t exist and the values are different and more understanding. As it is, reviewers have mostly clobbered The Violet Hour , though for different reasons.

A word about the newly opened theater itself: The renovation of the M.T.C.’s Biltmore, dark since 1987, cost many millions. On the one hand, it’s always good to see a derelict theater back in business. But they’ve restored the past and neglected the future. How much more exciting would it have been had they built a theater for the new millennium within the shell of the crumbling old Biltmore! A theater of the future would even be capable of transforming the shape of its auditorium according to the needs of each production. Like the terrific new Zankel Hall in the bowels of Carnegie Hall, it could be highly flexible, not formally static, mutatingly experimental or traditional. Built in 1925, the Biltmore essentially remains a 19th-century theater from the past: a proscenium arch space lovingly restored rather than re-invented.

Keep in mind, though, the belief that in the end, good work will always shine wherever it plays! I’ve literally seen new plays performed inside a derelict railway yard (a perfect theater in the semi-round) and in the middle of the Sahara Desert (a perfect empty space)-and all ultimately lives or dies depending on what’s performed rather than where. Ultimately, it all comes down to the show . And so, to Mr. Greenberg’s Violet Hour .

As his F. Scott Fitzgerald character, Denny, puts it: “The really big problem with the Broadway theater today is you always know what’s going to happen.” Mr. Greenberg’s smarty-pants sentiment is true enough, and the characters in his time-bending play are actually about to see a typical Broadway production. The playwright is tipping us off that his own play isn’t predictable. Life is predictable! I think. For if anyone can figure out exactly what the unfortunately scattershot, windy playwright is saying in The Violet Hour , they deserve a free ride on H.G. Wells’ time machine.

I must say that I wish I could place Mr. Greenberg, as his admirers do, in the same league as Tony Kushner when it comes to the theater of ideas and language. I’m afraid that his gay baseball saga, Take Me Out , struck me as a contrived melodrama drowning in “Greenbergspeak.” His use of language is archly mannered, seeming impressive. Words and ideas tumble out of him giddily, becoming unglued. Which baseball player can say of a homophobic lout-as Mr. Greenberg has him say in Take Me Out -that he “reveals a congeries of reprehensible social attitudes”? Oh, phooey! (Oh, congeries!) Nobody talks this way, except Mr. Greenberg.

Perceived as an intellectual, he’s a fertile and talented writer who rambles unchecked. His eloquence is overwrought, overheated. Hence this typically bloated exchange early in The Violet Hour :

“I believe in the novel of inclusion,” announces Denny, the young aspiring writer. “In the argument between Wells and James, I’m a decided Wellsian.”

“You’re more McClearyan than either,” his potential publisher replies, “and that’s not yet a finished thing …. ” It sounds good! (It sounds Stoppardian.) It’s just gas . Mr. Greenberg’s pretentious themes in The Violet Hour -predominantly the near-melancholic, twilight blur between past, present and future, or the struggle between free will, determinism and identity-flicker into occasional promise, but he reveals an approximate mind that too frequently loses focus. It was this same carelessness that characterized his 2001 drama Everett Beekin , about American Jewish life from 1940’s New York to late-1990’s California . While the first act dealt with a familiar picture-Jews living on the Lower East Side in 1947-it somehow neglected to mention the Holocaust. Not even the imminent foundation of Israel intruded on the coziness of it all. Mr. Greenberg had let his story about the slow drip of assimilation, or whether the goy gets the Jewish girl, run away with the play until it was finally overwhelmed in a conclusion about time passing that proved so densely complicated, it was almost impossible to understand.

The Violet Hour takes place in 1919, in the mess of a young publisher’s office. Four of its five characters are transparently based on historic figures: on the cultivated publisher Maxwell Perkins, who’s uncertainly starting out in his illustrious career; F. Scott Fitzgerald, here an aspiring novelist in love with a dreamy, spoilt, potentially mad Zelda figure; and Josephine Baker, the play’s model for an older black chanteuse with a tale to tell.

The plot-whose twist involves a mysterious machine that prints out the future-revolves around the question of which book the decent, fledgling publisher, John Pace Seavering, will publish: the ludicrously long first novel of his Princeton chum, Denis McCleary, whose heiress fiancée, Rosamund, will kill herself unless it’s published; or the memoirs of Seavering’s secret mistress, the famous black entertainer Jessie Brewster. Seavering might also have the unspoken hots for Denis, or vice versa. But let’s not go into that now.

The Violet Hour’s fifth character is the publisher’s embittered, campy assistant, who remains anonymously lost to history. It’s painful to report that Mr. Greenberg has created only a showbiz stereotype of a screaming queen. I assume the character named Gidger (played by Mario Cantone at the top of his lisping voice) is meant to be amusing. But the dramatist surely didn’t intend him to be that woeful, mincing invention of our time, a queer pet for the straight guy. It’s an extraordinary lapse.Frankly, Gidger’s an embarrassment to everyone.

Anyway, he finds the machine outside Seavering’s door that magically spews out thousands of pages from books published in the future. Seavering learns what will happen to himself and his friends! And unpredictable life, Mr. Greenberg appears to be saying, thus becomes as predictable as the usual commercial potboiler on Broadway.

True! The problem with the scatty, Jazz Age Violet Hour is that more or less everything that happens in it is predictable, including its romance-novel melodrama, the ruin of its Scott and Zelda, the self-destruction of its Josephine Baker, and the whimsy of its mysteriously futuristic printing machine.

Directed by Evan Yionoulis, the production has been elegantly designed with sets by Christopher Barreca and costumes by Jane Greenwood. The small cast, capably led by Robert Sean Leonard, went through two very public cast changes before the shaky opening at the Biltmore. Robin Miles, in particular, having taken over the demanding Josephine Baker role with just two weeks’ notice, should be proud of her work. Richard Greenberg’s play is another story.