The Weight of Words

Renaissance staging of ‘The Violet Hour’ dramatizes the golden days of American publishing.

By - Apr 11th, 2017 03:26 pm
The Violet Hour. Neil Brookshire, David Flores, Marti Gobel, Nicholas Harazin, and Cara Johnston. Photo by Ross E. Zentner.

The Violet Hour. Neil Brookshire, David Flores, Marti Gobel, Nicholas Harazin, and Cara Johnston. Photo by Ross E. Zentner.

The Renaissance Theaterworks production through April 30 is misnamed The Violet Hour.

The first act should be labeled The Gray Hour, so overblown are most of the words flowing amid the paper mess in a publisher’s tawdry office in 1919.

It makes the playwright, Richard Greenberg, seem the victim of his best visual joke, a budding author’s single manuscript that takes three enormous crates to haul around the studio stage of the Broadway Theater Center. The dialogue feels similarly overdone as director Suzan Fete ignores the need for setup, forgoes delicacy and pummels the audience with high comic volume.

While Greenberg may indeed tend to overwrite, his verbiage aims to appear far more savvy and elegant. He is conjuring up the golden age of 20th century literature when a well connected Princeton Brahmin (here named John Pace Seavering) could launch a shoestring publishing label and hit it big in the era of the F. Scott Fitzgeralds.

Any such historic purpose and cleverness in Greenberg’s word play become ponderous and completely evaporate in the hysterics of acting style, particularly from David Flores as the office functionary who carries so much of the plot and purpose with his fussy entrances and exits.

Yet the second act could brightly be named The Surprise Pink Hour, when a fantastical conceit (which we will not give away) allows both the comic intent and historic meanings to connect. Here the words soar into emotional exercises. Even Flores is part of some nifty essays into the original meaning of “gay” and the impending pretentiousness of the literati.

It is in this act that the debonair manners and hidden passions of Neil Brookshire as Seavering and the neurotic motor-mouth intensity of Nicholas Harazin as a budding author have better outings and indeed some very good acting moments. It also helps explain the sense that a Gibson Girl is about to commit romantic suicide, a feeling that runs through Cara Johnston’s portrayal of a meat packing heiress.

It’s a plus for any play to cast Marti Gobel, here as the black singer and seductress with inklings of legendary status. Gobel’s professional presence and subtle line readings help us understand why The Velvet Hour is even being presented by a theater company dedicated to plays that elevate women. The role touches interestingly on the motives of an exotic diva in a white society, requiring period posture and exposure, allure and degeneration.

There’s not enough of her in the play’s premise to keep us riveted, but Gobel sure helps.

The Violet Hour Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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