by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Weylin Symes
Stoneham Theatre
395 Main St, Stoneham MA / (781) 279 - 2200
through Nov. 14 (seen in preview)

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The difficulties preceding "The Violet Hour"'s opening last season in NYC, and its weak showing in limited Biltmore engagement might have impeded future production. However, Richard Greenberg's growing status as a playwright suggests that an adventurous regional theatre such as Stoneham could take a gamble with this odd play. Their production of Greenberg's "The Dazzle" last season was visually stunning and artistically successful. Their current effort is every bit as stylish, and equally well acted. The script is however more difficult, with the introduction of science fantasy elements and a snap-back to "reality" ending. As the cast settles into these intriguing roles, the complex relationships between characters will become even more interesting, if potentially slightly confusing.

The author has somewhat coyly set out to write a play where the expected might not happen, but somehow must. He's modeled his cast after the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald, his heiress wife, Zelda Sayre, and his publisher/friend Maxwell Perkins prior to the bombshell publication of Gatesby in 1920. To this volatile combination Greenberg adds a motherly black cabaret singer having an affair with the editor, an acerbic assistant, and a mysterious offstage machine that prints out manuscripts from the end on the 20th century containing revelations about their intertwined fates. The plot, such as it is, centers around whether a sprawling first novel from the fledgling writer, who has a touch of Thomas Wolfe as well, or racially-charged memoirs from the worldly singer will be published first. There's only enough money for one.

The young publisher from a wealthy background, John Pace Seavering is played by Patrick Zeller, last seen at Stoneham as the hapless hero in "As Bees in Honey Drown". His college friend Denis McCleary is Nathaniel McIntyre, who just directed "As You Like It" for Stoneham's Youth Ensemble Nate was seen this summer as Hector and Bassanio outdoors at the Publick. Denis' flightly inamorata, Rosamund Plinth, daughter of a meat packer, is played by his wife Stacy Fischer, who appeared this summer as Portia. These two young actors have developed a special chemistry which adds to each successive show they do, though this is her first appearance at Stoneham. The part of Jessie Brewster, which might suggest Josephine Baker or Ethel Waters, is taken by Carol Ann Parker, who's been seen on many local professional stages in the last decade. Gidger, the frustrated scholar serving as the rich kid's factotuum, is done by local favorite Neil A. Casey, who played the younger brother in "The Dazzle" last season. He has the best grasp of Greenberg's ironic whimsy, and handles the showy outbursts written into the part with care, avoiding the excesses Mario Cantone reportedly fell into at the Biltmore.

The main problem with this Absurd confection remains its attempt to set the conventions of what amounts to drawing room comedy on their head while sticking to the current tyranny of a two-act structure. There's a reason why three acts at least was the previous paradigm. The opening exposition seems unsure. One can't help feeling that the original NY production was rushed on the capitalize Greenberg's growing fame The idea probably seemed too perfect a show to open the renovated Biltmore. More development is clearly called for. The material is engaging and the characters fascinating; the convoluted questions about reality and fiction, the publishable kind, worthy of serious comedy, and even a touch of tragic irony. Director Weylin Symes has mined a great deal from this text, which somewhat resembles Denis' unruly book also named "The Violet Hour". He gets great help from recent MFA Cristina Tedesco's set, a combination of period touches and architectural fantasy. Gail Astrid Buckley's costumes capture the post-WWI era to perfection, though Parker's amiable Jessie might seen less contemporary with more color or decoration in the first act. The cast wears everything well, particularly Fischer. Mark Lanks's lighting deals with Stoneham's minor limitations to achieve a polished look and Jeff Jones' sound design, which must suggest the mysterious machine offstage does the trick.

Open-minded audiences will find a lot to consider in this show, and engaging performances to help them through the evening. Some will probably be sent back to reconsider the saga of Fitzgerald, others will be encouraged to watch for the production of Tony winning "Take Me Out" slated for this coming spring downtown at the new BCA. And some theatre group in Boston should be considering a revival of Greenberg's "Three Days of Rain" last seen here several seasons ago. The quality of this Pulitzer nominated author's playwrighting makes him perhaps the most likely successor to William's on the scene today.

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