Based upon Edward Hopper's famous painting of a late-night coffee shop on a desolate city street corner, Douglas Steinberg's new play, "Nighthawks," which is having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater, features a painter who says only one word in the entire first act. The word is "coffee," an apposite line of dialogue for a silent character spending significant stage time sitting at a counter.
This painter, known as the Customer, rarely speaks, and the other characters do not speak to each other so much as interrupt, disregard and talk past one another, the kind of miscommunication virtually always suggested by the subjects in Hopper's paintings. They rattle off dialogue like it's coming out of a Gatling gun and speak in a streetwise idiom right out of the New York ghettos.
Steinberg knows he is treading familiar ground here, ground previously traversed by Warner Bros. screenwriters from the 1930s and '40s, playwright Clifford Odets and novelist Daniel Fuchs in his Williamsburg trilogy. Steinberg knows that the reputations of Odets and Fuchs have suffered in recent years and that their dialogue, endlessly recycled, has become a cliche. To Steinberg's credit, he makes his dialogue sing.
"It's kind of poetic in its absurd, poor grammar, flowing in a vile, vulgar sort of way like 'Deadwood,'" he says, referring to David Milch's highly acclaimed HBO series.
Beyond the staccato lyricism of his language, Steinberg has also come up with a grand conceit in extrapolating a story line from Hopper's painting, a famous study in urban anomie. About 20 years ago, Steinberg's wife, the painter and actress Sarah Torgov, bought him a poster of "Nighthawks," which he placed above his desk. Soon afterwards, "the characters started whispering to each other," he says, and he began writing his play, which won an National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Despite being a playwright in residence at the South Coast Repertory Theater and a member of the Los Angeles Theatre Center Playwrights for more than 10 years, Steinberg could not get the play staged.
At the time he wrote "Nighthawks," he says, the painting was just starting to become part of popular culture, whereas "now, it's like a McDonald's sign."
Indeed, it has been co-opted by big business whose poster and tchotchke merchandisers have transformed it into Hollywood kitsch, changing the four unknown characters in the late-night diner into a roster of postwar entertainment icons, including Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
Steinberg, however, imagines the four principals the way Hopper did, as anonymous city dwellers. Mae, a one-time looker, is the waitress/owner of the diner; Quig, her underfinanced husband and cook; Sam, a polio-ridden friend and bellhop at a nearby 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 supposed to be Jewish. "It would be chauvinistic of me to take this man's painting and apply my own interest," he says in explaining his characters' nondescript ethnicity. The exception is Jimmy Nickels, an Irish gangster. Still, they all have what Steinberg calls a Jewish "sensibility" in that they "rail against injustice."
In bemoaning their fates, Mae, Quig and Sam question the Customer's motivation. Like the character in the painting who keeps his back to the viewer, long thought to be a model for Hopper himself, the Customer is a painter, but he may have more in common with fiction writers in that he devotes much of his time to observing others while giving away little of himself.
The play deftly questions the nature of the relationship between painter and subject. The Customer grapples internally with whether or not he is responsible to people whose lives he has entered, perhaps even intruded upon.
Although the Customer rarely speaks, he influences everyone in the play, many of whom subconsciously emulate him. Nickels, the neighborhood wiseguy, keeps his back to us, just as the painter does. Clive, the young hustler, seems always to enter just as the Customer exits. Lucy, Mae's niece and an aspiring dancer, echoes the painter in her one-word request, "Coffee." And there is even the dead carcass, black-market meat that takes the Customer's place on his favorite stool. Sam and Quig wrap it up, so that it will be mistaken for a drunk.
This doubling reminds us of the longstanding link between art and theater, which is particularly acute at a proscenium arch theater like the Kirk Douglas, where each scene can be framed like a painting. This is best illustrated in the so-called silent scene suggested in the script. Like a closed-window episode in an Ernst Lubitsch movie, the silent scene in the play freezes the principals in time as in a work of art. The silence is finally broken when, appropriately enough, the painter exclaims, "Coffee," as if telling his models that they can take a break after hours of holding a pose.
The play concludes with what Steinberg calls "a Solomon story," where one of the characters must choose which loved one to sacrifice. It is also a variation on an O. Henry ending, in that a good intention goes awry, but the result is far from benign.
Hopper, whose work inspired Hitchcock's "Psycho" as well as the after-hours theme of Turner Classic Movies' promotional spots, understood a life of compromise. As Quig says of Sam, who has endangered the group, but for whom he has a soft spot, "What other man but Sam knows the night like I do? Huh? What other man has cared to share a smoke, a laugh?"
"Nighthawks" has its world premiere on Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 24 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.