In the Old Globe's vibrant production of "The Violet Hour," the stage is set askew, like a giant floating cube, with one corner jutting out into the audience.
It's an apt design, courtesy of David Korins, for Richard Greenberg's off-kilter comedy, where youthful potential hovers in the air, waiting for history to happen. But "The Violet Hour" is much more than a stylish period piece set in the early 20th century. The Globe production boasts Carolyn Cantor's smart direction and an energetic, potent young cast along with Greenberg's verbose and literary wit.
John Pace Seavering is a recent veteran of the Great War who comes from a wealthy family but aims to be self-sufficient. His publishing house has the means to publish just one book. So, he must choose between the meandering, voluminous work by a college chum or the simple, poignant memoir of his secret lover, a famous black singer.
Lucas Hall plays the polished, well-mannered Princeton grad and would-be publisher with appropriate aloofness and reserve. Over time he reveals deeper passions, hidden emotions and a heroic desire to do the right thing.
His character reveals the generation's sense of vast promise, the feeling that, following the Great War, the worst was behind them. "Those who aren't dead are young," he says, with a certainty that his generation has nothing to lose and everything to gain. With fin-de-siecle hindsight, we know this group of hopefuls (Greenberg even modeled his characters on such Jazz Era luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda Sayre, publisher Maxwell Perkins and Josephine Baker) is destined to be dubbed the Lost Generation.
Greenberg -- the Tony Award-winning playwright introduced to Globe audiences with "Three Days of Rain" in 1999 and last year's hit "Take Me Out" -- intriguingly and intelligently explores this theme of historical perspective throughout the play.
The story takes place during the course of one day, April 1, 1919, in Seavering's cluttered office. But the play does some time traveling when a mysterious machine arrives and begins spewing out pages of text from the end of the century. Through these books from the future, Seavering learns the implications of the choices he makes, the tragic fates of those around him and how history will view them.
Greenberg and this cast delight in poking fun at our idiomatic, academic language as well as our slang -- the characters find themselves using alien words like "existential," "co-opt" and "dude."
T. Scott Cunningham garners the most laughs as the neurotic, swishy, tantrum-prone office assistant. Cunningham, who also starred as the gay accountant turned baseball devotee in the Globe's "Take Me Out," again delivers the comic goods in a performance that threatens to steal scenes without going over the top or overshadowing the rest of the ensemble.
Patch Darragh is all over the emotional map as the manic writer Denis McCleary, expressing everything from wild delight to suicidal despair, frat boy chumminess to righteous indignation.
Christen Simon is cooly restrained in her portrayal of the jazz chanteuse who's keeping more secrets than just a white lover. And Kristen Bush is desperate and charming as the heiress in love with McCleary but set to marry another. Her tiered laughter, spilling like a waterfall, is a symbol of that endearing mannerism in young love that turns to dreadful annoyance in the tedium of a disintegrated marriage.
Robert Blackman's swank costume design suitably reflects the times, and Matthew Richards' lush lighting spills through three windows, shifting beautifully with the hour of day.
Cantor's deft, swift direction brings these elements together in a light, hilarious production that also carries the weight of history, tragedy and fate.
This mix of frivolity and seriousness is at the heart of Greenberg's captivating story and what it means to be "gay" in the early 20th century: "To insist on one's own happiness when God or the forces of chaos rally to oppose it ... To understand that the future is at best bleakness deferred, and to go on."
PROGRAM: "Violet Hour," by Richard Greenberg
Organization: The Old Globe
Dates: Through June 25
Show times: Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Location: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
More information: (619) 23-GLOBE, www.theglobetheatres.com
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