On Time 

The Violet Hour fills Theatre Memphis with laughter.

There's something phenomenological happening here," shouts Gidger, the high-strung office-working nobody of Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour. He whines and wheezes and shakes his doughy fists that are filled with pages from a history book that was written in the future. But nobody pays any attention to him. Not right away. Or ever.

For a play pocked with terrible puns, silly dog jokes, ironic racial slurs, and subtle literary gags, The Violet Hour is delightfully visceral and sophisticated entertainment that can make an audience feel as though "something phenomenological" is indeed happening right before their delighted, disbelieving eyes, even if they have no idea what "phenomenological" means.

The playwright's Three Days of Rain — a somber meditation on the ticking clock and the turning of generations — was a smashing success on Theatre Memphis' NextStage in 2003, and he has once again turned his attention to the subject of time. Only now Greenberg's frantic overwriting harkens back to wonderfully outrageous dialogues imagined by Thornton Wilder for The Skin of Our Teeth.

The play, which takes place at the dawn of the Lost Generation, just before F. Scott met Zelda, opens on a disheveled John Pace Seavering and Gidger, his comically forgettable employee. They are frantically searching for a pair of lost theater tickets in a discombobulated office that's littered with thousands of unpublished manuscripts.

It's spring 1919, the Great War has ended, the '20s have not yet roared. Seavering, a frugal young publisher, needs some mindless diversion. He only wants to spend enough money to publish one book, but he feels pressured to publish the million-page mess of a modern novel by his best friend from college and also a slim biography written in taut, muscular prose by his secret mistress, Jessie Brewster. In the midst of all the fuss and bluster, a mysterious machine filled with gears and levers is delivered to the office. Chaos follows.

The pages the machine prints speak of Seavering's illustrious future and events that are too terrible to bear. Justin Willingham grows into Seavering over the course of the show. What begins as rather one-dimensional becomes flesh and blood when he realizes that outcomes aren't so easily predictable and no matter which book he publishes he's destined to lose a friend or a lover.

In spite of what the book from the future may have said to the contrary, Jason Spitzer's Gidger will be remembered for a very long time. Spitzer, who was hilariously slimy as Mr. Collins in both the original and revived mountings of Theatre Memphis' hugely successful Pride and Prejudice, is show-stoppingly funny. And by that I mean that on opening night he showcased his ability to stop the show with little more than an existential sigh of disdainful resignation. In this self-consciously self-conscious piece of writing, his character is a deliberate homage to Mr. Zero from Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, America's first professionally produced expressionist drama. Watching Spitzer noisily deflate as he realizes he'll die in complete obscurity is a gut-busting joy.

Laurence Goodwin, Kinon Kiplinger, and Bronzjuan Worthy are uniformly solid in the play's supporting roles.

Director Bo List, the executive producer for Germantown Community Theatre and an occasional contributor to the Flyer, shows a real affinity for his absurd material. Although everything seems disordered, from the floor of the theater to the image-cluttered prose of the script, The Violet Hour is a deceptive study in tension, timing, and meticulous order. Even when the characters ramble, List's production ticks like a clock.

Christopher McCollum's set, a deconstructed post-WWI New York office, is both minimal and overstuffed with architectural detail. New York City is transformed into a stack of manuscript-filled boxes and the spinning shadow of a ceiling fan turns even the most ridiculous elements in The Violet Hour into a big, dark, compelling mystery.

Through March 22nd

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