Long before Woody Allen struck a chord with viewers in his time-traveling movie Midnight in Paris, playwright Richard Greenberg took audiences on a similar kind of ride in The Violet Hour, which currently is receiving a merry staging from Max & Louie Productions. But whereas Allen's fantasy journeys from the present back to the Jazz Age 1920s, the futuristic Violet Hour (which debuted on Broadway in 2003) travels in the opposite direction. Here the play's most privileged characters are given a glimpse of what is to be rather than what has been.
Greenberg's April Fools' Day tale is set in 1919 — which, we are told, was a time of hope. "We've been through the worst," neophyte publisher John Pace Seavering (Drew Pannebecker) avers. With the Great War finally at an end, "Life can never be that bad again." Seavering clearly is a man of limited vision; he will be surprised to learn that the very name of the Great War will be changed to World War I. As The Violet Hour begins, he is preoccupied with two much more immediate concerns. First, he's looking for a pair of lost theater tickets. Second, the impoverished publisher must make a crucial decision. He only has finances enough to release one book. Should it be the sprawling debut novel of ambitious Princeton pal Denny McCleary or the memoir of celebrated chanteuse Jessie Brewster (the ever-elegant Monica Parks)? Act One focuses on this very pressing dilemma.
The play then takes a charmingly bizarre change of course when, after the unexpected arrival of an "indecipherable" new printing press, Seavering and his high-strung assistant Gidger (an entertaining Antonio Rodriguez) discover that their hovel of an office is being inundated with manuscripts that won't be published until decades later. They learn, for instance, when and how they and their friends will die. The script's fantastical tone cushions some probing questions: Do you want the burden of knowing what's going to happen in the future? Should you believe everything you read?
In one of the script's more obvious setups, the characters frequently complain about the "utterly predictable" New York theater of 1919. By contrast, playwright Greenberg's plot basks in unpredictability. The Violet Hour is both original and derivative. The flask-toting young writer McCleary, for instance, is loosely modeled after F. Scott Fitzgerald; the girl he would marry, celebrated meatpacking heiress Rosamund Plinth (Betsy Bowman), owes her existence (if not her family's profession) to Scott's muse, the ethereal yet doomed Zelda. As the driven McCleary, Jake Ferree more resembles a young Jeff Bridges than Fitzgerald, which may be a good thing. Especially in Act One, Ferree's persuasive energy gives the viewer someone to root for; his passion provides a reason to care about what's happening.
What's really happening is that we are being exposed to a playwright who is brazenly in love with his own script, a playwright who delights in his own intelligence. At its headiest, The Violet Hour's Niagara-like flow of copacetic words is exhilarating. Alas, in both acts Greenberg is a little too smitten with his own dexterity; each act is longer than it need be. But the affectionate direction of Sydnie Grosberg Ronga keeps the story engaging. Despite the occasional overwritten patch, it's easy to root for a play that is both inventive and unexpected. Ironically, what is most surprising here is that a comedy that strives to be so original should end up feeling so sweetly old-fashioned — all in all it's a refreshing and felicitous evening of thoughtful theater.