Kirk Douglas Theater
By Douglas Steinberg
Directed by Stefan Novinski
August 27 – September 24, 2006
In 1995 an anthology was published which bound and edited American writers seemingly kindred with or inspired by Edward Hopper. The text accompanied a retrospective of Hopper’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The title was boring, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination
, but the roster of texts included were far from it -- Galway Kinnell, Norman Mailer, John Hollander. Only the finest were included, and all pens described a low world -- a world of hitchhikers, hit and runs, gangsters and hookers. There is a sort of nineteen forties Jackson Pollock coffee shop alcoholism going on. A tough world.
However, the big moments in the writing only seem to lead up to what Hopper actually revealed in his paintings – the moment of dread, of longing and quiet, coming right after the storm. In Hopper, there are no big events, no big actions. You maybe get an aloof stare, not out at the viewer, but into some unspeakable area of life. The only drama in his paintings is two draped feet over a bed, harsh morning light angling knifelike in a corner. A lit cigarette is like an explosion. A cup of coffee, a bulwark against time. “Remember,” Hopper seems to be saying, “Be careful with light. That’s not salvation it brings.”
Douglas Steinberg’s play Nighthawks at the Kirk Douglas Theater is another exercise of giving us the moments that come before a Hopper painting, and Steinberg is observant enough to know that Hopper’s Nighthawks
shows many of the same moment at once. The painting describes a ritualized passage of time which constantly evolves back on itself, arriving at the same despairing moment. Therefore, at many points during the play the actions turn into a version of the painting. Steinberg reminds us that the Nighthawks are people of habit, regulars who always order the same thing, talk about the same topics, and long for the same unattainable objects.
We find the opening scene set in the famous painting, where two of the main characters are debating over who should take a look at the famous man across the counter, drinking his coffee alone and silent. This is a brilliant opening -- the characters trying to force each other to do the one thing that we, as viewers of the painting, have never been able to do, to discover the root of our intrigue, to discover literally who the man is -- forever out of our grasp as viewers of the painting.
With brief, elaborately paused, snippets of dialogue, we slowly meet the characters. The unknown man, of course, is right where he always is, seated with his back turned to us. The man in the white soda suit is Quig, the owner of the diner and the estranged husband of Mae, the lady in red at the bar. She is a former Ziegfield girl washed up on the shores of this lonely beach. To Mae’s right is Sam, a victim of Polio who longs for Mae, a lost love, a dancing partner he never forgot. We soon also meet Lucy, Mae’s niece, and Clive, the disreputable boy after her affections and anything else he can get his hands on.
A story develops. Naïve virgin Lucy meets Clive, who establishes their relationship on promises of success on the stage and offers of unconditional love. At the same time Mae is suspicious, has seen this before in her own life, but is too involved with her own self-loathing to get much involved. She becomes obsessed with the man at the bar, who by this time is a painter who works in the studio across the street. Sam makes a play for Mae, not by seducing Mae herself but by awkwardly asking the permission of Quig. Sam and Quig then become bound up in scheme of blackmarket meat, which culminates in a funny, although unbelievable scene, where Mae mistakes a bloody cow carcass for a drunk at the bar.
However, the problems start with the meat. The plot picks up considerably. Clive is scheming. Sam is scheming. The Mob comes. The Mob threatens. Mae is scared. Quig is helpless. The painter, the lonely man at the counter, is, well . . . you’ll see. When the action quickens and the dialogue pitches higher, things get a little out of hand. Once the mob gets involved, the play takes on the quality of a gangster film, which are still a joy to watch but cannot help but come across as a bit hokey to a contemporary audience. We seem to know the characters well -- we seem to have them figured out.
Why is this bothersome? I like Norman Mailer. I like noir, and the acting was top notch, especially Colette Kilroy as Mae – fully convincing in her rants, a full blown firecracker to shake up the dead weight around her. Also, Brian Finney’s dejected Sam is heartbreaking to watch limp around the stage. Finney suggests that Sam moves more than anything out of inertia. His schemes are poorly planned. He is more disabled in heart and mind rather than from polio. So why was the play problematic? Why did the story seem to outleap the bounds set by Hopper with his painting?
I think the answer is that Hopper’s bounds are complex and ambivalent. We know that his characters are tough, but they are always vulnerable and quiet before us, as if at the moment of their reckoning. We never get to know them. Hopper conceals as much as he shows, and in doing so, any attributes we apply to his characters, though we agree on a few things, are always our own. Steinberg had an enormous task – to take an iconic painting, the most reproduced image at the Art Institute of Chicago, and tie it to a story that makes sense. Steinberg did a good job, but, as one reviewer noted, this play is not yet to the place that it could be.
Some important cues could be taken is from the plays own staging, which was well done. Donna Marquet, set designer, and Rand Ryan, lighting designer, understand a great deal about Edward Hopper. The audience gasped when the curtain was drawn. One exuberant lady sighed, “It’s the painting!”
The painting was not merely reproduced, it was examined and interpreted. Marquet caught some of the abstract qualities of Hopper’s work that impressed painters like Willem De Kooning and Mark Rothko – that hard yellow diagonal at the top which both defines and pinches the space inside the diner, the retaining wall which uses a hard curve to suffocate the space even further, segregating the people in the diner from the cruel darkness outside that somehow seems to define them. At the same time, Marquet noticed that the bar could easily be like a coffin, and that the space is ever closing in. She adds a door, but it doesn’t bother us. Rand follows the characters, noticing that Hoppers light does the same, conjuring their presence and moods even in an empty room.
The edited play should find these details and work them into the action. The characters could move slower and develop in a creepy yet normal way. I don’t think that the play needs the mob. I don’t think it needs the sacrificial virgin. I don’t think it needs a literal outside of the restaurant. This would be a great chamber play, and Hopper’s painting is usually read that way – locked up, full of tension ready to bubble and bust. Something must always be wrong even though everything seems ritualized and pedestrian.
What Hopper reminds us of is that to become a regular anywhere, even at home, is to be in a position to find the world both expanding and contracting at once. While on one hand, people are normal and recognizable, offering the face they want to show. They can be this way for years. On the other hand, the extreme discretion with which they act, the reticence to reveal their secrets, augments the power of our knowledge of them when it comes. It comes, not as a revelation, but laced with even more secrets, as if you’ve just begun to know them. This makes for a lot of deathbed regret. “I wish I would have known him better.”
Hopper knew this existence well and could capture this tone in his work. This is missing from the play as it stands.Photo Courtesy of Center Theater Group