Based aloft Edward Hopper’s acclaimed painting of a late-night coffee boutique on a abandoned burghal artery corner, Douglas Steinberg’s new play, “Nighthawks,” which is accepting its apple premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater, appearance a painter who says alone one chat in the absolute aboriginal act. The chat is “coffee,” an applicative band of chat for a bashful appearance spending cogent date time sitting at a counter.
This painter, accepted as the Customer, rarely speaks, and the added characters do not allege to anniversary added so abundant as interrupt, apathy and allocution accomplished one another, the affectionate of miscommunication around consistently appropriate by the capacity in Hopper’s paintings. They bang off chat like it’s advancing out of a Gatling gun and allege in a able argot appropriate out of the New York ghettos.
Steinberg knows he is treading accustomed arena here, arena ahead traversed by Warner Bros. screenwriters from the 1930s and ’40s, author Clifford Odets and biographer Daniel Fuchs in his Williamsburg trilogy. Steinberg knows that the reputations of Odets and Fuchs accept suffered in contempo years and that their dialogue, endlessly recycled, has become a cliche. To Steinberg’s credit, he makes his chat sing.
“It’s affectionate of anapestic in its absurd, poor grammar, abounding in a vile, barnyard array of way like ‘Deadwood,’” he says, apropos to David Milch’s awful acclaimed HBO series.
Beyond the staccato lyricism of his language, Steinberg has additionally appear up with a admirable conceit in extrapolating a adventure band from Hopper’s painting, a acclaimed abstraction in burghal anomie. About 20 years ago, Steinberg’s wife, the painter and extra Sarah Torgov, bought him a affiche of “Nighthawks,” which he placed aloft his desk. Soon afterwards, “the characters started whispering to anniversary other,” he says, and he began autograph his play, which won an National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Despite actuality a author in abode at the South Coast Repertory Amphitheater and a affiliate of the Los Angeles Theatre Center Playwrights for added than 10 years, Steinberg could not get the comedy staged.
At the time he wrote “Nighthawks,” he says, the painting was aloof starting to become allotment of accepted culture, admitting “now, it’s like a McDonald’s sign.”
Indeed, it has been co-opted by big business whose affiche and tchotchke merchandisers accept adapted it into Hollywood kitsch, alteration the four alien characters in the late-night booth into a agenda of postwar ball icons, including Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
Steinberg, however, imagines the four principals the way Hopper did, as bearding burghal dwellers. Mae, a ancient looker, is the waitress/owner of the diner; Quig, her underfinanced bedmate and cook; Sam, a polio-ridden acquaintance and attendant at a adjacent hotel; and the Customer, the man with no name, who secretly or not-so-secretly paints the three others.
Steinberg grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, although none of his characters are declared to be Jewish. “It would be antipathetic of me to booty this man’s painting and administer my own interest,” he says in answer his characters’ characterless ethnicity. The barring is Jimmy Nickels, an Irish gangster. Still, they all accept what Steinberg calls a Jewish “sensibility” in that they “rail adjoin injustice.”
In affliction their fates, Mae, Quig and Sam catechism the Customer’s motivation. Like the appearance in the painting who keeps his aback to the viewer, continued anticipation to be a archetypal for Hopper himself, the Customer is a painter, but he may accept added in accepted with fiction writers in that he devotes abundant of his time to celebratory others while giving abroad little of himself.
The comedy cautiously questions the attributes of the accord amid painter and subject. The Customer grapples internally with whether or not he is amenable to bodies whose lives he has entered, conceivably alike intruded upon.
Although the Customer rarely speaks, he influences anybody in the play, abounding of whom subconsciously challenge him. Nickels, the adjacency wiseguy, keeps his aback to us, aloof as the painter does. Clive, the adolescent hustler, seems consistently to access aloof as the Customer exits. Lucy, Mae’s niece and an ambitious dancer, echoes the painter in her one-word request, “Coffee.” And there is alike the asleep carcass, actionable meat that takes the Customer’s abode on his admired stool. Sam and Quig blanket it up, so that it will be mistaken for a drunk.
This acceleration reminds us of the longstanding articulation amid art and theater, which is decidedly astute at a proscenium accomplished amphitheater like the Kirk Douglas, area anniversary arena can be affected like a painting. This is best illustrated in the alleged bashful arena appropriate in the script. Like a closed-window adventure in an Ernst Lubitsch movie, the bashful arena in the comedy freezes the principals in time as in a assignment of art. The blackout is assuredly burst when, appropriately enough, the painter exclaims, “Coffee,” as if cogent his models that they can booty a breach afterwards hours of captivation a pose.
The comedy concludes with what Steinberg calls “a Solomon story,” area one of the characters charge accept which admired one to sacrifice. It is additionally a aberration on an O. Henry ending, in that a acceptable ambition goes awry, but the aftereffect is far from benign.
Hopper, whose assignment aggressive Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as able-bodied as the after-hours affair of Turner Classic Movies’ promotional spots, accepted a activity of compromise. As Quig says of Sam, who has endangered the group, but for whom he has a bendable spot, “What added man but Sam knows the night like I do? Huh? What added man has cared to allotment a smoke, a laugh?”
“Nighthawks” has its apple premiere on Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 24 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For tickets and information, alarm (213) 628-2772.
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