I want to talk to you about something very serious. But because you have engaged me here to review theater, and not to discuss cultural problems generally, I must save these remarks until later, and first tell you about what I have just seen. What I have just seen is very good – a sizzling, thoughtful, provocative drama by the prolific author of Bal Masque. The Violet Hour offers special challenges to the producing company, and 1st Stage, animated by clearheaded direction from Mark Krikstan and marvelous, and absolutely contrasting, performances by Lucas Beck and David Winkler, has thoroughly overcome them.
The play is set in the April 1919 publishing office of John Pace Seavering (Winkler), high aloft among Manhattan’s towering spires (Bob Krause does the beautiful scenic design, including a wonderful, though anachronistic, depiction of the Chrysler Building, which was not completed until 1930.) Seavering is not a bad fellow, but he is no more qualified to be a publisher than he is to be a poet or a ballerina – two other careers frequently undertaken by his fellow fresh Ivy League graduates possessed of a trust fund in the early part of the twentieth century. He knows everything about literature (as do all similar recent grads) and nothing about how to sell a book.
Seavering’s dilemma is this: he has the resources to bring out only one book, and he cannot decide between a magnum opus written by his Princeton classmate Denis McCleary (Daniel Chestnut) and a beautifully written, profoundly revealing memoir by an African-American chanteuse, Jessie Brewster (Natalie Tucker). McCleary’s epic is so lengthy that it must be carried around in two crates (when Seavering objects to a particularly gruesome metaphor, McCleary breezily invites him to remove it. “It’s only ten pages, out of two million,” McCleary points out.) To raise the stakes: McCleary, an old friend of Seavering, has just met the love of his life, a meat-packing heiress named Rosamund (Jessica Aimone). Her heartless father, though, will cut her off without a dime if she marries him unless he has the prospects of a successful career – such as being a published novelist. On the other hand, Seavering’s relationship with Ms. Brewster – well, let’s just say it’s of the kind which normally doesn’t require an agent.
This would be a standard potboiler – the stuff of a typical play in, say, 1919 – except for one exceptional element: there is a machine in the front office which blows out pages from books written at the end of the twentieth century. These pages set forth history in the macro sense (“It’s no longer The Great War,” cries Seavering’s assistant Gidger (Beck) in dismay, “It’s been demoted!”) but in the micro sense as well: Seavering gets to see what choices he’d made, and what the consequences were. A cautious, uncertain young man acutely aware of his lack of experience, Seavering falls on this information like manna. But he learns that knowing the future doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
There is another exceptional element, and one I’ve never seen done successfully before: this is a mournful drama for four characters, and a wild comedy for the fifth. Seavering’s choice is heartbreaking, as is McCleary’s and Rosamund’s doomed love, and the racism which has afflicted Brewster from birth. Gidger, in the meantime, is a whirlwind of mirth, a punctilious snip of a man who loudly bemoans his low estate and his service to the unimpressive Seavering, so profoundly unjust in light of his manifest talents as a writer and a poet. He, more than anyone, pours over these missives from the future in order to discover the massive impact he has had on literature and thought. He finds out, too. I won’t tell you what it is – it’s too funny to write here.
Having one character in a comedy while the rest are in a drama almost never works, but it works here. This is in large part because Beck commits so unambiguously to the character, making him a human sneer which sometimes turns into a human tremble. In his manic dashes from Seavering’s office to the outer lobby, from whence he returns festooned with freshly-spewn paper, Beck seems like a younger version of J. Fred Shiffman, full of antic, and perfectly timed, comic vigor.
But it also works because of Winkler, who gives Seavering a humane and tolerant – though stuffy and strikingly immature – persona. Winkler’s Seavering reacts to Beck’s wild Gidger precisely as such a man would react, even in a drama: with compassion and good humor. Indeed, the entire cast radiates a level of comfort with each other which makes each character likeable, and thus sweetens the conflict. Tucker, a community theater veteran who is apparently making her professional debut (1st Stage is dedicated to helping actors break into professionalism) embodies Brewster’s toughness and self-confidence. It’s easy to believe that notwithstanding the horrors of racism this woman could become a singing sensation, write her memoirs and love a rich young white man. Chestnut and Aimone give McCleary and Rosamund a sort of Scott-and-Zelda aroma of midnight frivolity which makes their story, sadly, instantly recognizable and identifiable.
Strong technical values back the production; I was particularly impressed with Ian Campbell’s beautiful lighting, Peter Van Valkenburgh’s strong sound design (the page-spewing machine was particularly effective) and the spot-on period costumes by Andre Hopfer and Cheryl Wu.
This is a fine play, well and endearingly produced. That’s the aesthetics. Now let’s talk politics.
There is a ton of great theater in Washington, Arlington, and Bethesda. 1st Stage has done a marvelous bold thing in putting a professional theater in Tysons Corner. Other efforts to make theater in the outlying communities have generally been underfunded and inattentive to quality (I know there are exceptions, such as Olney and Rep Stage) but 1st Stage has gone all out, both in how they treat their customers and what they give us to see. Eventually they will have to win over the residents of Tysons Corner – including the ginormous apartment building across the street – but if they are ever to reach that stage, they will first have to be supported by people like us…by which I mean the readers of DC Theatre Scene. Having written for you for three years, I have some idea who you are: lovers of theater, who see a dozen plays or more a year. You know the difference between good and bad theater, and you want the good stuff: intelligent material, well written, well acted and well produced. Like most folks, you prefer good theater close to home but you’re not afraid to travel some distance – even to New York – for high-quality material. You are exactly the audience this good company needs until they build their own base.
Tysons Corner is a little off the beaten track, but it’s not, say, Staunton: just 10 minutes or so from the Route 7W exit on the Beltway. I would not take the unusual step of recommending that you help this young company by going to their shows except that I have seen their first two shows. The Suicide was brilliant and The Violet Hour is very good indeed. If you help these guys until they find their sea legs, audience-wise, you’ll be thanking yourself later. And maybe your kids will be thanking you, later still.
The Violet Hour
By Richard Greenberg
Directed by Mark Krikstan
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: 2:10, including one intermission.
When: Fridays through Sundays until December 12. Friday shows are at 8; Saturday shows are at 4 and 8; Sunday shows are at 3 and 7.
Where: 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, McLean, VA
Tickets: $25 ($15 for students). Go to the website.