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The Violet Hour: Page turner

The fate of the printed word hangs in the balance

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Are you reading these words on paper? If so, enjoy it while still you can.

Print, once the undisputed, essential medium for relaying information, has surrendered ground to pixels and may never reclaim it. The institutional dislocations at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mark merely the most prominent local signs of shocks felt by publications everywhere, including this one. Such changes extend to books, as well. Lately it seems that, without the influence of Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling, the book would go the way of the papyrus scroll.

The contemporary notion of "the paperless office" sharply contrasts with the statement made by the set of 7 Stages' The Violet Hour. Arbiter House Publishing Company, a fledgling Manhattan publisher in 1919, features precarious stacks of manuscripts that are so tall and so numerous, they eclipse the sight of the two men talking when the play begins.

Playwright Richard Greenberg clearly understands how present-day audiences will perceive The Violet Hour's nearly obsolete setting. Greenberg wrote the hit zeitgeist-defining baseball play Take Me Out, and with The Violet Hour, shifts to an era when reading was also one of America's great pastimes. The action takes place at the dawn of arguably this country's greatest literary generation. The main characters – undiscovered novelist Dennis McCleary (Brian E. Crawford) and would-be publisher John Pace Seavering (Atlanta newcomer Bobby Labartino) – evoke the legendary team of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and editor/publisher Maxwell Perkins.

From our vantage in the year 2007, we view The Violet Hour's first act aware of our foreknowledge. When ever-optimistic Seavering declares, "The century is so young and already the worst has happened," we both admire and pity his naïve assumption that things can't get worse than World War I. Then Greenberg ends the first act with a head-spinning twist that completely upends the plot and our preconceptions of it. 7 Stages' articulate if unsteady production mostly succeeds in delivering The Violet Hour's mind-boggling message, in which the characters pass judgment on the future, and vice versa.

The early scenes unfold with deceptively old-fashioned elegance, as Seavering banters first with his prissy assistant, Gidger (Doyle Reynolds), then with his Ivy League school chum, McCleary. Both actors seem so young and fresh-faced, it's difficult to believe that either character has any experience of war, but they capture the exuberant energy of New York at the beginning of the Roaring '20s.

McCleary writes with the undisciplined prolificacy of Thomas Wolfe (another Perkins discovery), but like F. Scott Fitzgerald has found his Zelda in Rosamund Plinth (Heather Starkell), who proves to be both free-spirited and mentally unstable. Starkell's performance wisely emphasizes the former rather than the latter quality as Rosamund pressures Seavering to publish McCleary's book, titled The Violet Hour.

The problem, or so it seems at first, is that as a startup publishing house, Seavering only has the resources to release one book, and he's equally tempted by the memoir of Jessie Brewster (Yvonne Singh), a renowned African-American singer who happens to be Seavering's secret lover. The choice of two manuscripts, each carrying significant personal and professional risks, offers a superb dramatic dilemma that's as worthy of George Bernard Shaw as is the play's flights of rhetoric.

"The Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, however, proves equally influential. Throughout Act 1, Gidger reports on the arrival of an offstage machine that makes a rattling noise and begins spewing pages, conjuring images of a stock ticker or a teletype machine. At first you might think, "OK, I get it, it's the symbolic intrusion of the modern-day, mechanized communications." As a blizzard of white paper sheets blankets the office, the truth turns out to be far more bizarre. You wouldn't believe me if I told you.

The Violet Hour's second half generates ideas like the unseen gizmo produces paper, focusing on how history records and distorts the truth. Literary fame and academic scrutiny may be far worse than simply being ignored by the passage of time, and Seavering wonders if publishing McCleary's book could be a long-term calamity for the loving couple.

The difficulty with The Violet Hour is not that it takes an abrupt leap into the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, but that the plot's rules prove so arbitrary and ill-defined. When Gidger starts channeling present-day slang, or characters critique "our" era, you feel the hand of the playwright probing for laughs or rapping the knuckles of a post-literate age.

Making such a quantum leap is a lot to demand any production or audience, and you can empathize with director Joe Gfaller's efforts to keep pace with the material. At times the acting seems mannered and artificial – but that first impression can be misleading. Early on, Reynolds plays Gidger broadly to the point of burlesque, overemphasizing words for comic effect. Only when Seavering later asks, "Why has your voice stopped spiking?" do we realize how intentional Reynolds' earlier choice was, as if Gidger was striving to be a "personality" instead of a person. Nevertheless, of all the actors, Singh as Brewster embodies her role with the least amount of visible self-consciousness.

For all its strangeness, The Violet Hour's action turns out to be more linear and straightforward than 7 Stages' usual programming, which tends toward the avant-garde. Perhaps the company has gotten a little rusty with (relatively) conventional narratives and realistic sets. A stronger foundation of realism could give the play's science-fiction ideas something solid to push against. Despite its eccentricities, The Violet Hour's lively production advances such challenging and pertinent themes that it should be required reading.

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