ARTS

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May 13, 2003

Postmodern nonsense will leave you unfulfilled

You know how everyone likes pie? Or at least some kind of pie? Cherry, apple, pumpkin, rhubarb, especially if it's home-baked with that perfect kind of crust that doesn't feel at all artificial--someone loves it. Sure, some people are under the impression that they don't like pie, but usually these people have been misled into thinking that the pie-like substance they've found in the freezer section of their grocery stores is actually pie.

For these people, I have news: what you're eating is not actually pie.

And, you know how everyone likes to see a good play once in a while? And those people who say they don't like theater have probably only seen the frozen pie equivalent of a play?

For this second group of people, I have news: if you want to continue disliking theater, go see The Violet Hour at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Not only is the play inconsistent, gimmicky, and frequented by nose-blowing types of all sorts, it also happens to be sponsored by Sara Lee, a company that, in case you didn't know, manufactures frozen pies.

So, for those of you that don't want to dish out $35 for this freezer-burned piece of theater, I'll tell you what happens. There's this guy, right, and he's kind of an aristocrat, and he's also kind of cute--maybe you saw him in Proof; his name is Josh Hamilton. Anyway, Josh plays this guy, John, who bears a slight resemblance to Danny Tanner from Full House, and who flatly delivers lines that could be quite poignant, such as "Losing your youth only means the world isn't the way you thought it was." John just started a publishing company, and in order to make us, the dumb audience, fully realize this, the set designer has piled paper all over the stage. Not that the set isn't attractive; it's a three-quarter thrust, only the middle quarter has been transformed into a point, and we're supposed to be looking in on John's office. One other thing: it's 1919.

Also, there's this guy, Gidger, played by Tom Hopper. Gidger is supposed to serve as the comic relief of the play. He's anxious and always needs to consult John about this machine behind the office. He opens and closes the office door a lot. It was unclear why, besides comic relief and transition between unrelated pieces of text, his character was present at all.

But what I'm sure you're wondering is, how does this play transform itself into a "COMIC FANTASY ABOUT FATE, AMBITION, AND LOYALTY," as one of the publications tells us ever-so-gently in all caps? The answer--well, I'll tell you the plot first. John has a friend from Princeton, Denny (played by Kevin Stark) and both of them use their cigarettes to great advantage when the directing has failed them. Denny was a charming Irish student at Princeton who used John's connections to great advantage. Now Denny wants John to publish his enormous novel so that he can marry a girl whose father thinks he, Denny, is worthless. John thinks the novel is very good, and would be willing to publish it if--get ready--he didn't have a lover who also wanted to publish a novel.

Not only is this lover, well, a lover, she is also black, and I suspect this was supposed to shock the audience. Given the fact that much of the audience seemed to be, shall we say, the age of a good bottle of Scotch, it may have worked, as demonstrated by the ubiquitous comments of "Oh my!" and "Goodness!" Or maybe they were just shocked at the much too long and rather graphic scene between the lovers, which also seemed to serve little purpose.

By the end of the first act, it seemed clear that this was a period piece destined for failure; the characters were wooden and unsympathetic, and it was impossible to believe that people in 1919 actually behaved as formally as they did. But who could have known that the second act would be a piece of postmodern fill-in-the-blanks? The machine that Gidger mentioned has acted up, and out of nowhere is spouting books and criticism of the future!

The plot becomes fragmented to the point that there is no longer any chronology or clear distinction between reality and dream sequences. An ill-placed blackout served only to remove the audience further from scenes they couldn't comprehend, and the general level of anxiety and yelling that began the play ultimately ruined what was supposed to have been the climax--John standing under strobe lights screaming "I can't move!" There was no build-up to the madness, alcoholism, suicides, and homosexuality that characterized the second act, and what happened at the end was unclear.

However, most problematic was the lack of depth of the characters. Initially they had all seemed puppets to cheap laughs; now they were throwing themselves out of windows (or were they?). And somehow, at the end, they were all fine (or were they?). But these parenthetical questions, which apparently were supposed to comment on fate and the nature of art, didn't really seem worth answering after the two-dimensional stock characters had been applauded and left the theater.

In fact, I kind of felt like going home and taking a shower.