What follows, however, quickly leaves Hopper in the dust. It's as though the characters were involved in some sort of improv game in which they were forced to start in the poses from the painting, but then allowed to run off into whatever story they want. Instead of a study of lives of haunted desperation, Steinberg gives us a bellhop who acts on his secret love interest, an ingenue telephone operator who is taken with a guy she met on the phone, a mafia boss with a speech impediment, and a plot involving a stolen side of beef. Far from the shared solitude of the painting, these characters joke, dance and flirt. By the time someone puts a coat and hat on the side of beef, it seems more Weekend at Bernie's than Nighthawks, and you wonder if Hopper isn't spinning in his grave.
The piece is populated by 1940s stereotypes who often speak laughably trite dialogue. Colette Kilroy, who plays Mae, the lady at the counter, gets the worst of it - having to say things like, "a kid wet behind the ears" and "stars in her eyes." Kilroy gamely tries to make a real broad out of Mae, but by the time she says, "I didn't hear you yappin' so I thought ya took a powder or sometin'," there is just no taking her seriously. Dan Castellaneta has better luck with Quig, Mae's husband, who is also the waiter/owner of the diner. Castellaneta disappears in the small, fidgety character, and he's completely plausible as he delivers Quig's somewhat simple philosophy. Brian T. Finney also has a decent turn as Sam, the sympathetic fellow who has a thing for Mae.
Director Stefan Novinski makes excellent and creative use of the single set. However, a few fights, staged by Steve Rankin, are particularly unconvincing.
To be fair to Steinberg, while not completely spoiling the play, he has not, in fact, abandoned the painting that motivated it. The payoff at the end is powerful and true to the play's source. But to get there, you've basically got to sit through a pretty mediocre and uninvolving story, with the faith that the playwright will ultimately pull it all together.
Nighthawks runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through September 24, 2006. For tickets and information, visit www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director - presents Nighthawks by Douglas Steinberg. Set Design by Donna Marquet; Costume Design by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; Lighting Design by Rand Ryan; Original Music Composed by Michael Roth; Casting by Erika Sellin, CSA; Associate Producer Nell Keller; Production Stage Manager Scott Harrison. Directed by Stefan Novinski.
Photo by Craig Schwartz