Publish and Perish

Purple Prose: Princeton chums Leonard (left) and Foley in The Violet Hour.Photo: Joan Marcus

Recently, some of us tried to determine who was America’s most overrated playwright. David Mamet had his partisans, as did Tony Kushner. When Richard Greenberg was proposed, unanimity seemed imminent. But one advocatus diaboli cited Take Me Out, which at least has strong parts for actors. No one had yet seen his new play, which tries to take us in, else he would have won hands down. The Violet Hour violates us “in the vilest way” (as the old song has it). It may be—and, having seen more trash than a veteran sanitation worker, I don’t say this lightly—the worst thing a supposedly reputable playwright has ever concocted. I sat there, dumbstruck, wondering who could laugh at this, let alone applaud.

It concerns a rich young novice publisher, John Pace Seavering, who, in 1919, is torn between two manuscripts, only one of which he can afford to publish. One is The Violet Hour, a novel by his volatile college chum Denis, whose many thousand disjunct, undisciplined pages fill three crates. The other is the autobiography of his lover, Jessie, an older but still comely black singer, who unfortunately does not write the truth. If he doesn’t publish the novel, Denis will lose his girl, Rosamund Plinth (!), daughter of a Chicago meatpacking millionaire, who won’t let his child marry a nonentity. If he doesn’t publish Jessie, there goes his love affair, a sample of whose torridness is tastelessly exhibited onstage.

John has an assistant, Gidger, so gay he would make a Jean Genet hero look like Jerry Falwell. Here is Gidger on the subject of his dog, which he hates enough to kill: “Sir Lancelot. But sometimes I call him Sir. Sometimes I call him Lancie, sometimes I call him La. Sometimes I call him Celot, sometimes I call him Slut. Sometimes I call him Lut, sometimes I call him Sla, sometimes I call him Ut. With each new name I hope to call forth some as yet undiscovered and admirable aspect of his personality.” (Shakes his head.) “No.” Or take John’s wooing of Jessie: “And you’re with me now—in this tower above a canyon—with the traffic noises all muffled below—and you’re famous—and a Queen—an Ethiopian—a female—potentate!—grand and tall and smelling marvelously like a department store.” And here is Rosamund about her lover: “I think when you grow up a certain way … when you don’t gain admittance to certain rooms … or do, but too late, and with all the wrong feelings about them … there must always be something a bit off in your rhythm, something that makes you never at ease.” (Beat.) “Possibly that’s all to the good.” The audience howls with laughter, as also at a running gag about the misplaced tickets to a play called Faintly My Heart.

A mysterious machine arrives at the office. At will, it spews out avalanches of pages from books to be written a near-century later about the characters in the play. This allows them to time-trip without so much as budging. The play manages to be simultaneously silly and smart-ass, pretentious and preposterous, with the kind of humor that would take a dozen cats a week to drag in.

Evan Yionoulis has directed as frantically as Greenberg has written, and though Robert Sean Leonard tries gallantly to give a performance, Dagmara Dominczyk, Scott Foley, Robin Miles, and especially Mario Cantone are content to ham it up each in his or her own conflicting way. About Faintly My Heart, John says, “It’s an enormous hit.” Gidger replies, “And we know what ‘hit’ rhymes with, don’t we?” Even so, Faintly My Heart couldn’t help being preferable to The Violet Hour.

Apropos cats, here again is Tennessee Williams’s nine-lived Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play daring for 1955, as its hero, Brick, suffers less from a broken ankle than from the suicide of his friend Skipper, who could not accept that his long and close friendship with Brick smacked of repressed homosexuality. This, too, is why Brick hates and refuses to sleep with his sex-starved wife, Maggie, nicknamed “the Cat,” who desperately tries to bed him so as to produce an heir, lest his father, Big Daddy, dying of cancer, leave his vast possessions to Brick’s oafish brother, Gooper, his greedy wife, Mae, and their five “no-neck monsters”—with a sixth on the way.

It is a curiously riven play expressing both Williams’s sexual mistrust of women, hence Big Daddy’s loathing for his longtime wife, Big Mama, and Brick’s for Maggie, who loves him; and also Williams’s feminine side and its identification with Maggie—call it vagina envy. It is this duality, as well as pungent, sardonic dialogue, and some effective bits of melodrama (overemphasized here by Anthony Page’s staging, in which a crutch becomes a quasi-lethal weapon) that make Cat an almost-riveting play.

The current revival has a scrupulously dedicated Maggie in Ashley Judd, despite an unflatteringly desexualizing wig; a powerfully tangy and idiomatic Big Daddy in Ned Beatty, and solid supporting work, particularly from Margo Martindale (Big Mama) and Michael Mastro (Gooper). The lone liability is the Brick of Jason Patric, a Marlon Brando impersonation such as even second-rate stand-up comics have ceased to perpetrate.

At the Kennedy Center, you can see Bounce, a musical about the legendary Mizner brothers—Addison, a con man and sometime architect, and Wilson, a con man, parasite, druggie, and elegant wit—by the legendary Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), Harold Prince (direction), and not-so-legendary John Weidman (book). The brothers had spectacularly yo-yoing lives, but all the gambling, expeditions to far-flung places, assorted bilkings, and fraternal love-hatred have not been harnessed into a shapely book. Even under Prince’s guidance, it cannot quite find its tone: Is it a vaudeville about two smooth operators viewed with amused detachment, or is it a rollicking human-interest story in which we rejoice at the successful scams and wince at the setbacks? Which-ever, Sondheim provides one great song, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” and two nice ones. There are also three fine performances by Richard Kind (Addison), Howard McGillin (Wilson), and Michele Pawk (the not-so-pure love interest), but poor choreography and not enough wit in the text. Much effort has already been expended on the show; whether further ministrations can salvage it remains to be seen.

Publish and Perish