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THEATER REVIEW: “The Violet Hour”

If you could look into the future, would you? Do you really want to know the consequences of the decisions you make today?

Playwright Richard Greenberg likes to play with time. His “Three Days of Rain” begins in the present and ends in the past. “The Violet Hour,” playing through Nov 23 at OnStage Playhouse, begins in the present and peers into the future.

“The Violet Hour” opens on April Fool’s Day, 1919 in the cluttered office of recent Princeton grad John Pace Seavering (James P. Darvas), whose wealthy father has staked him seed money for a publishing house.

Helping John is fussbudget factotum Gidger (Philip John), who complains about the predictability of Broadway plays (without seeing them) when he’s not running in and out from the hall, trying to get John to come identify a mysterious machine that has appeared there.

But John, whose office is littered with stacks of manuscripts, is more concerned about deciding which book to publish first. His choice comes down to two: a rambling mess of a “novel” in three huge boxes by friend and former classmate Denis McCleary (Justin Allen Slagle), or a slight memoir by his black mistress, club singer Jessie Brewster (Lucinda Moaney).

Denny’s case is more urgent – at least in his mind. His girlfriend, the lovely and loquacious Rosamund Plinth (Jenna Wille) “of the meat-packing Plinths” (John’s question: “Is she beefy?”), is slated to marry a suitably rich man unless Denny can demonstrate the ability to support a wife.

But Jessie, 14 years older than John, wants her story told as well. “It’s not enough to be famous to a few dozen drunks in evening clothes who condescend to worship me,” she says. “I want my life known.”

While John dithers, the machine is cranking out paper at an alarming rate. Finally Gidger ends the first act by bursting in with news that will change the trajectory of the plot: these papers are from the future.

The immutability of fate is suddenly under consideration in the second act, as John and Gidger read the machine’s output and learn what’s in store for them, their friends and the world.

They start with a giggle session over future linguistic neologisms like “co-opted” and “takeover” and restate that tired old business about the change in meaning of the word “gay.”

But the script loses its oomph as it loses focus, with a cold recitation of what will happen to the characters – many of whom we haven’t met – and John’s decision about which book to publish (which was obvious to all but him in the first act).

On the plus side, there’s an affecting scene between John and Jessie, and Gidger gets to ramp up the comic relief even more when his joyously over-the-top interpretation of a stock character gets a decidedly modern twist. But the overall effect of the act is a bit disappointing.

Darvas is convincing as the bright but indecisive John, his exchanges with Gidger the liveliest.

Moaney’s Jessie is the most interesting character here, and seems to be the one with the best grip on social and artistic reality.

Slagle amuses as the typical word-drunk Irish writer with out-of-his-league ambitions.

Wille looks just right as Rosamund, – pretty and blonde – but on opening night did not project well enough to be consistently understood.

Kudos to set designer Bruce Wilde for the expansive but messy office set and to Jessica Brandon for the time-appropriate costume design.

Lighting and sound are well handled by Michael Barahura and Steve Murdock.

But this show belongs to John’s hilarious Gidger, without whom this play would be a bit of a slog.

The details

“The Violet Hour” plays through Nov. 23 at OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Ave., near F Street, Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.