The characters in Richard Greenberg's "The Violet Hour" are giddy and extravagant, prone to sweeping narcissism and visionary gestures; they are Jazz Age dreamers reaching for the moon. They have a wild brand of beauty, and so does Greenberg's inventive play, which is getting its largely appealing area premiere in the tiny downstairs space at Columbia's Rep Stage.
You might feel as if you've encountered some of these figures before. That jaunty, vaguely morbid writer bent on dominating the literary world -- is that F. Scott Fitzgerald? And is that dizzy flapper with the manic laugh Zelda, his future wife?
Sort of. In the play, they are known as Denis and Rosamund. Together, they are pushing Denis's manuscript (a sprawling thing delivered in wagons) on John Pace Seavering, a fledgling publisher meant to evoke Maxwell Perkins, the renowned editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and other literary giants.
Denis and Rosamund aren't the only writers hoping to bottle lightning through a book deal. They are competing with Seavering's secret lover, Jessie Brewster, an exotic chanteuse who is the toast of New York and Paris (Josephine Baker, anyone?). And then there's Gidger, Seavering's grandiloquent assistant, a figure based on . . . well, nobody. Gidger's everlasting obscurity is one of the show's running jokes, an affront to Gidger's considerable vanity that Bruce Nelson mines for laughs in rants that are delightfully petulant and baroque.
Not just Gidger orates with verve and swagger (although he does get most of the punch lines and over-the-top bits). Greenberg writes in an unbridled, entertaining style, peppering the dialogue with highbrow one-liners and allowing his characters to carry on in vast, dazzling tracts. (The roles and ideas are grand: You wonder why so many of the area's larger theaters passed this script by.) Everyone seems to be fizzing with possibilities, and they are channeled into Seavering's benevolent yet oddly helpless hands.
Poor Seavering: He's destined to be filthy rich someday, but the ship of his inheritance hasn't yet come all the way in. He can afford to publish only one book, and he's paralyzed by the responsibility. Seavering wants too much to do precisely the right thing by his lover, by his old pal Denis -- in every possible way.
The play hovers on this fine point in time, as the hopeful present begins hurtling toward the future (which is always aglow with promise -- or is it?). Part of the appeal of "The Violet Hour" is how Greenberg pursues his theme. The comedy grows reflective as the specter of the 20th century comes into focus. Yet it's so full of fancies that the plot depends on a mysterious gizmo that keeps spewing out pages from books yet to be written -- the only object of fascination in the pointedly run-down office created by set designer Richard Montgomery.
Director Kasi Campbell has a keen appreciation for the play's changeable tone; she lets Nelson all but send himself into an orbit of comic frenzy, yet draws us in quietly as Timothy Andres Pabon's Denis, caught in the dwindling beam of a lone spotlight, sinks to the depths of despair.
There's a bit of a hole at the center of the show. As Seavering, Ian Lockhart doesn't altogether capture the lush moral ambiguities that the conflicted publisher is forced to consider; Lockhart's confusion is small, written on a plain, blank face. There is also something dry and unbelievable about Lockhart's long scenes with Deidra LaWan Starnes's cool, flashy but not believably anxious Brewster. Neither the sophistication nor the melodrama of the Seavering-Brewster relationship catches fire. (It's fair to blame Greenberg for the latter failure: Toward the end of each act, he seems to willfully write himself into a corner, as if to see whether he can find a way out that's unpredictable and believable, and it doesn't always work out.)
The missteps seem minor compared with the play's aggressive flirtation with time-tinkering, its "Back to the Future" tactics and its ambitious nose for the intriguing gray areas hinted at by the title. Pabon's combination of sunshine and duskiness is dead-on, and so is Megan Anderson's fetching, melancholy turn as Rosamund. Anderson makes a splendid entrance, flighty and delighted -- her Rosamund is a champagne bubble, and when the bubble pops, she's a sloppy mess. You can see how the alluring, flailing character might very well drag two people all the way down.
But, of course, it would be spoiling things to say exactly how Rosamund and Denis turn out. And in the well-calibrated "Violet Hour," Greenberg wouldn't do that for the world.
The Violet Hour, by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Lighting design, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; music/sound design, Chas Marsh. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Nov. 20 at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/repstage.