Boston Area Stages Give New Life to New Works
Cast in order of appearance:Sterling North, Clark JacksonElla Franklin, Sylvia Ann SoaresPaul Barrow, Benjamin EvettAlfred Morris, Paul D. FarwellKanika Weaver, Giselle JonesGillian Crane, Tracy Oliverio
Box Office: 617-332-1646 or www.newrep.org"The Violet Hour"Written by Richard GreenbergDirected by Weylin SymesScenic Design by Cristina TodescoCostume Design by Gail Astrid BuckleyLighting Design by Mark LanksSound Design by Jeff Jones
Cast:Gidger, Neil A. CaseyRosamund Plinth, Stacy FischerDenis McCleary, Nathaniel McIntyre Jessie Brewster, Carol Ann ParkerJohn Pace Seavering, Patrick Zeller
Box Office: 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org
Two of last year's strongest new plays – "Permanent Collection" by Thomas Gibbons and "The Violet Hour" by Richard Greenberg – made their New England premiers recently. Presented by the New Rep in Newton Highlands and the Stoneham Theatre in Stoneham, Mass., these gutsy productions are just two of the many works of talented contemporary American playwrights being staged in and around Boston this season.
The New Rep and Stoneham Theatre – like many other regional companies across the country – are breathing second lives into deserving new plays. They are keeping artistically impressive but often commercially unsuccessful dramas from fading into obscurity. With their non-profit status and loyal subscriber bases, these groups are taking the kind of risks that produce raw, flesh-and-blood theatrical experiences instead of homogenized, cartoon-based extravaganzas.
Yes, with the Great White Way looking somewhat anemic in the non-musical category these days, it does take a little extra effort to find good new plays. But roadmaps are available. For directions, call any one of the nation's regional repertory theater companies. They'll be happy to help you navigate safely through the changing American theater landscape. Broadway may be the marvelous invalid, but regional theaters are in full recovery.
The New Rep's version of Thomas Gibbons' volatile play about racism in the world of art is an honest, gripping two hours of theater that poses but never fully answers the question, "Must race always be an issue whenever black and white men disagree?" Loosely based on real-life incidents that rocked the Barnes Foundation, one of the world's largest and most important private art collections located in a quiet suburb outside of Philadelphia, "Permanent Collection" painstakingly peels away layers of tradition, institutional politics, and self-deception to expose the damaging realities of cultural bigotry.
Right from the opening monologue, Gibbons establishes the emotional rift between Black and White. Alone at center stage at rise is Sterling North, a successful black businessman who has been appointed the new director of the Morris Foundation, a prestigious private art collection willed to the traditionally African American Hayward University by its former owner, the late (white) Dr. Alfred Morris. North introduces himself to the audience by relating how a white police officer pulled him over on his way to his new job that morning. The officer, it seems, was suspicious of a black man driving a Mercedes through a white neighborhood. Stung yet again by racial profiling – this is not his first experience with such discrimination – North struggles to stick to his oft used non-confrontational script. The problem is, today he can't quite contain his smoldering rage. He's just plain tired of explaining himself. So with icy control and a calculated precision, he calmly but forcefully lets the officer know that he will be driving through this upscale suburban enclave daily from now on. If he is stopped again, he'll sue the pants off the community.
Once at the Foundation, North finds that similar conflicts emerge almost immediately. When he replaces the venerable Ella with his own assistant Kanika and then decides to remove eight pieces of African art from storage to hang among the Cezannes, Matisses, Renoirs and Picassos, the Foundation's educational director, Paul Barrow, defies him. Citing a clause in the late Dr. Morris' will, Barrow insists that the collection remain unchanged. Not a piece may be added, relocated or removed. Displaying the inferior African folk art, he contends, would be an insult to Dr. Morris and to the impressionist masterpieces in the exhibit.
Clark Jackson as North and Benjamin Evett as Barrow deliver penetrating performances as they each become progressively less civil and more blatantly hostile toward one another in their battle for political righteousness and artistic control. They accuse each other of racism while refusing to see their own prejudices, clinging to dogma and documents that thinly mask the real issues at the heart of their dispute. Ultimately their conflict escalates into all out war in which the media and the courts become their weapons and their battlegrounds.
The sad irony of this clash of artistic wills gone haywire is that the combatants emerge relatively unscathed by the outcome while their associates and the Foundation are permanently damaged. North's assistant Kanika is the person most brutally wounded. Played with a genuine warmth and openness of spirit by Giselle Jones, this unencumbered young woman has her color blindness destroyed when she becomes a pawn caught between her loyalty to her longtime mentor and her affection for her newfound friend. Both men deeply disillusion her and shatter her innocence forever. In a heartbreaking scene where she comes to understand true bigotry for the first time in her young life, Jones shows us a woman whose spirit has evaporated. She appears hollow and bitter. The hatred between the ambitious black businessman and the envious white educator has all but killed her.
As the ghostlike curmudgeon Dr. Morris, Paul D. Farwell adds an air of mystery and mischievousness to the proceedings. He hovers about the halls of his Foundation, suggesting but never stating his true reason for willing his collection to Hayward. Was it, as Barrow contends, a final act of contempt toward the great art institutions that Morris mocked throughout his life? Or was it his genuine passion for the ability of "Negro art" to transport him spiritually like nothing else could? Whatever the case, his choice of beneficiary – like his choice to leave a much loved collection of African art permanently in storage – perplexes.
The New Rep's "Permanent Collection" is both disturbing and entrancing. It makes us see two sides to the issue of racism while demonstrating how ridiculously out of hand a disagreement can get when personal agendas polarize people unwilling to understand each other's cultural truths. It also raises the unanswerable question: who decides which art is worth seeing? After all, even great masterpieces express only one point of view.
"The Violet Hour"
In contrast to the harsh realism of Gibbons' searing drama, Richard Greenberg's "The Violet Hour" is a surrealistic mix of whimsical humor and philosophical soul searching. Set in 1919 at the start of the Jazz Age, this serio-comic fantasy starts out as a lighthearted parody of the self-absorbed dilettantes of the Gatsby generation but later twists and turns to expose the insecurities beneath the bravado.
The two catalysts that propel "The Violet Hour" are contrived but effective. In the first act, neophyte publisher John Pace Seavering is placed in the impossible position of printing either the ponderous anthology of a novel written by his best friend and college chum Denis McCleary or the autobiography of the famous black jazz singer Jessie Brewster with whom Seavering is having a clandestine affair. Seavering's dilemma is that both books have merit but he has enough capital to publish just one – and each author has attached intense emotional baggage to his decision. McCleary states that if his novel "The Violet Hour" isn't published, his wealthy heiress girlfriend Rosamund Plinth will leave him and concede to an arranged marriage with the son of a family as prominent as her own. If Brewster's memoirs aren't published, she implies that she will withdraw her affections and leave her young lover to his otherwise cautious and predictable life.
Into this mix of staid and self-absorbed pseudo-intellectuals jumps Gidger, a fidgety, hyperventilating smart aleck of a publishing assistant who is rather like a farcical all-knowing fool. His tendency toward over dramatization, however, causes him to be ignored and dismissed by his "superiors" – that is, until he reveals that the mysterious machine that was just delivered to Seavering's office is spewing paper that chronicles the history of the 20th century after 1919.
The introduction of this bizarre post-industrial crystal ball is the second catalyst that confounds Seavering's decision-making even further. By reading the machine's detailed and voluminous output, he learns his future – and discovers the tragic events that ensue as a result of his publishing decision. For a man who is afraid to be accountable for even the least significant of his actions, the burden of responsibility of seeing what is imminent for himself and his friends is paralyzing.
As post Ivy Leaguers, Patrick Zeller (Seavering) and Nathaniel McIntyre (McCleary) look every bit the dashing young aristocrats, but their difficulty in handling Greenberg's erudite (and sometimes pretentious) language make them appear even more rigid than their characters suggest. They are least comfortable when alone together, seeming to exchange tedious monologues rather than engaging in what should be spirited collegial debate. They are at their best when the script calls for them to be more vulnerable and less self-important. Their individual scenes with Rosamund, in particular, sparkle.
Much more at ease with Greenberg's ethereal prose are the acerbically funny Neil A. Casey as Gidger and the agile Stacy Fischer as Rosamund. Whereas Casey is a whirling dervish who spits Gidger's words out as if they were watermelon seeds, Fischer's expressions alternate between being tender, flirtatious, arrogant, pensive, and demanding. Both give us characters who are palpable – Casey a droll upstart and Fischer a hummingbird with a broken wing.
As Jessie, the Josephine Baker-inspired character, Carol Ann Parker seems to be the least centered of the cast. Like Zeller and McIntyre, her discomfort with Greenberg's dialogue turns what should be sexually and emotionally charged repartee into hasty and indifferent exposition. Parker does show glimpses of the fading celebrity who desperately wants to be remembered as an inspiration. But it is only when the carefully constructed façade Jessie has put forth in her memoirs is exposed as a sham that she makes a true impact.
Director Weylin Symes has integrated the fantasy, poetry, humor, hope and despair of "The Violet Hour" admirably. He leads his cast smoothly through the transitions from 1919 to the future and back again, and gives free reign to the comic babblings of Casey's Gidger whenever he finds himself uncontrollably applying late 20th century idioms to his present situation.
Sets, costumes and lighting are also spot on in this production. The sharp lines of Seavering's office walls and windows suggest the "angled and obvious" details of the publisher's carefully measured life. Beautifully tailored outfits and detailed period accessories invoke the heyday of the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Muted pink and white clouds against a shimmering blue sky slowly fade to purple as New York approaches the "violet hour, the time of day that makes everything worthwhile."
The only real letdown of "The Violet Hour" is Greenberg's trite ending. For two hours he has concocted a splendid mystery, placing the fate of his characters in the hands of a man forced to decide between one future or another. Suddenly a third alternative arises, and everyone is let off the hook. While this concession toward a happy ending doesn't negate all the pleasure that has come before, it did leave this particular viewer wanting more.