Greenberg's Grape Period

Greenberg's Grape Period The Violet Hour explores the effect that one decision can make, a subject both familiar and fascinating to playwright Richard Greenberg

A young Richard Greenberg in Harry Haun's sweater
A young Richard Greenberg in Harry Haun's sweater

I'd give Richard Greenberg the shirt off my back. And have, on at least one occasion. Truth to tell, it was a sweater, left behind in a fast exit from an ex who later directed his first play in New York — The Bloodletters — and who gave it to him for a photo that ran with his first interview. I like to think his sense of style started there.

He reminded me of this the morning after his Take Me Out took the Tony for Best Play of the season. (Technically, in the parlance of this piece about a gay baseball player, maybe that should be Best Triple Play, since prizes also went to Joe Mantello, the director, and Denis O'Hare, the featured actor who revels in Greenberg's fanatical love of the sport.)

It took him 19 years and 20 plays to get to this apex — and still no grass grows on Richard Greenberg. He sat himself down in the conference room of press representatives Chris Boneau and Adrian Bryan-Brown and started focusing on his next Broadway assault, incredibly apple-cheeked and cheerful for one who hadn't slept since first he touched Tony.

In contrast to Tony winners who feel entitled to tie one on, there is Richard Greenberg, model of moderation. He was, in fact, nursing a grape soda — but feeling guilty about it.

"Do you think this is very regressive behavior, to be drinking grape juice?" he asked the reporter. "Isn't it what children drink? I don't know what drew me to it, or maybe that was it." Or maybe again — subconsciously — he was just color-coding himself for the conversation ahead. He has titled his new opus, after all, The Violet Hour, which is how one of its particularly poetical characters describes an urban sunset, "that New York hour when the evening is about to reward you for the day." It's 1919, and the subject at hand is not — as you might imagine from the author of Take Me Out — the notorious "Black Sox" World Series. "The play is about prolepsis," he proffered unhelpfully. Drawing a blank from the reporter, he kicked in the asterisk: "Prolepsis is dealing with the future as if it has already happened. Even 1919 is a bit of a cheat here. It should be closer to '24 or '25, but I like the cuspiness of 1919. It's great New York, kinda jazz age and kinda nascent Scott Fitzgerald. It's also postwar."

And just why did his time machine stop at this particular point in time? "I was one of those children who got a Scott Fitzgerald fixation at 12," he confessed rather proudly, "and, in certain oblique ways in this play, I suspect I do finally get to write about him."

The play's principal character is a Maxwell Perkins-at-the-starting gate, John Pace Seavering (played by Robert Sean Leonard), a young man from old money planning to start up his own publishing firm with 1) the memoirs of his mistress, a black chanteuse named Jessie Brewster (Robin Miles), or 2) a massive tome by a college pal, Denis McCleary (Scott Foley). The latter is the Fitzgerald facsimile, and he's even allowed his Zelda, the manic-depressive heiress of a meat-packing empire named Rosamund Plinth (Dagmara Dominczyk). Also factored into the play: Seavering's eccentric office help, Gidger (Mario Cantone), and a printing press that only produces pages that were written in the future.

"I think Take Me Out is the most violent departure — the most unexpected play — from me. Look, I'm shocked that I wrote it. If four years ago you had said, 'You're going to write a baseball play, and it's going to be the biggest hit you ever had,' I would have sent you packin' to a home. But sometimes you get really invigorated when something is new. And it was. I'm a great believer in being interrupted, and this was a kind of interruption — a great one — an enhancement of my life. The new play is more in line with my other stuff."

The Biltmore Theatre, which closed its doors in 1987, opens them again on The Violet Hour on November 6, when Greenberg gets his groove back — or maybe that should be grove.