Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men contains the story of Enoch Soames, an 1890s “decadent” poet so desperate to find out what his future reputation would be that he sold his soul to the Devil, who immediately transported him to a library of the future, where he learned that he was only remembered as . . . the hero of a story by Max Beerbohm. John Pace Seavering, the hero of Richard Greenberg’s new play, The Violet Hour, doesn’t sell his soul to the Devil or travel into the future; but he, too, is eager to learn posterity’s view of him, and so the future finds a way to come to him—or rather, Greenberg finds a way for it to do so. For this playwright, like his main character, is a deeper and trickier fellow than he appears at first glance.
You’d think reviewers would have learned how to read Greenberg by now, but no: His intriguing and articulate play has appeared in a less than great production, and suddenly colleagues of mine who are normally supposed to know the difference between play and production are hurrying to bash him with every blunt instrument in their vocabularies. Funny, since barely six months ago, when Take Me Out moved to Broadway, he was their fair-haired boy. Well, human predictability is the key to futurology, so I look forward to a second and better production of The Violet Hour, at which I will snicker up my sleeve while the guys who panned this one twist themselves into knots trying to explain away their earlier condemnation of a work they suddenly adore. I could cite precedents—anyone remember the Public Theater production of True West?—but as always with Greenberg, there are more interesting matters to take up.
Seavering is a rich young man, alumnus of Princeton and World War I, who sets out in 1919 to found a publishing firm that will transform American literature. Not yet the heir to his family’s whole fortune, he can only afford to publish one book as a starter. His two possible choices are a sprawling first novel by his best pal from college, and the memoirs of a popular black singer; what complicates the decision is that the pal is his sometime lover (to what physical extent is unclear) and the singer his current mistress. For an extra turn of the screw, Seavering’s pal has become infatuated with an unstable, self-destructive young girl whose wealthy father wants her to marry an achiever; getting his novel published is his only way to get the girl. This elegantly structured dilemma is quintessential Greenberg, taking place in a stylized world, one step over from historical reality, where every individual, however humble, is a fount of elaborate rhetoric, bubbling with ideas. The situation is straightforward, but the sprays of talk it generates wander in every direction, landing lightly on more topics than you can count.
Enter the machine, inexplicably delivered to Seavering’s office; the prophetic pages it pours out are delivered to his inner sanctum by the play’s fifth character, his downtrodden factotum, Gidger—who would be the comic relief if there were anything remotely funny about Mario Cantone’s painful one-note screech of a performance. Though not openly gay—or openly anything else—Gidger is also the play’s sibylline chorus as well as its messenger from the future. An officious little drudge with only a constructed identity (Seavering never knows if “Gidger” is his first name or his last) and no affectional ties except to his dog, Gidger is late 20th-century man prefigured. Alternately gushing and snide toward the glamorous figures he shares the stage with, he wants nothing more than to be a celebrity himself. Like his boss, he finds the future’s depiction of him a bitter comeuppance.
Having learned the terrible truth of what’s to come, Seavering has a different choice to make: Destroy his own and his friends’ hopes now, or grit his teeth and face the future. Here, too, Greenberg is cunning: Fate makes Seavering’s choice for him; his heroic task is to accept it. (Something similar occurs in the play’s probable model, Rene Clair’s 1944 film It Happened Tomorrow.) For the audience, this nicely leaves the big questions, about life and art and what’s worth doing, hanging in the air, to be solved our own way when we get home. Full of despair, disaster, and pain, it’s a lesson in how to hope.
Greenberg’s fanciful style, piling the clauses high, works overtime here, occasionally at the expense of action and clarity. Evan Yionoulis’s production, lumbered not only with the excruciating Cantone but with two last-minute replacements for some misguided celebrity casting (when did MTC turn into the Roundabout?), struggles to keep the script’s elements in balance, and doesn’t always lose. Robert Sean Leonard (Seavering) mixes high-comic crispness and brooding to wonderful effect, and gets strong support from Robin Miles (though visibly playing catch-up ball) and Scott Foley as his two passions. And among the many praiseworthy items you might not notice in the Cantone-induced bedlam are the subtle colors of Donald Holder’s lighting, and a hilarious parody of postmodern academic jargon, about which Sean Leonard remarks, in an immaculately timed deadpan, “It seems to be written in patois.”