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A CurtainUp DC Review

by Dolores Whiskeyman

The original "Nighthawks" is a classic painting by American Realist Edward Hopper: Four lonely souls in an all-night diner, each lost in thought, sit unreachable and silent behind a plate glass window as a sad yellow light spills across the darkened walk. 

It is vintage Hopper, a stark, spare world of shapes and shadows that evokes a deep sense of loss and need. There is a famous parody of the painting that places Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart at the counter, and Elvis Presley behind it, ready to pour up a cup of joe. Down at the end of Lonely Street is an Edward Hopper landscape. With Hopper, we enter the world of American iconography. 

That's reason enough for any writer to proceed with care when writing a work "inspired" by Hopper. In Nighthawks the play, author Lynn Rosen offers a series of vignettes that purport to capture "vintage New York" as Hopper saw it - that city of disappointment and disconnection, in which the boy does not get the girl and the girl, it turns out, is bad anyway. The very concept is impressive and raises expectations mightily. But concept alone can't carry a play--although director Michelle T. Hall tries hard to make it happen. The production at Studio Theatre's Secondstage is a pretty picture, indeed, with a deco set by Greg Mitchell and costumes by Andrea Sarubbi. With lights by Allen Grimm and sound by Ron Oshima, Nighthawks aspires to do as Hopper did, and capture the essence of an era. 

But the script gets in the way.

Press materials promise "often haunting, often hilarious vignettes [that] explore urban isolation and illustrate the human desire to be noticed, to be loved, and to connect." Reading that, I am primed for a theatrical punch in the kisser. What I get instead is a procession of almost unwatchable sketches, badly acted to the point of pain, offering cliché instead of insight, and substituting a stifling boredom for the searing loneliness Hopper knew so well. Only, the boredom is mine, not the characters'--and it hits about three minutes into the show. 

There are exceptions to all this tedium: "Office at Night" and "Nighthawks," both in Act Two, succeed thanks largely by the adroit performance of Don Scime. As a frustrated bookkeeper trying to get the attentions of a woman across the street, Scime creates a character to whom something matters and something is at stake. The other standout sketch is "Conference at Night," in which Suzanne Richard, Michael Miyazaki, and Craig Pearman create a comic conspiracy. Richard is particularly interesting to watch, and Pearman is endearing as a befuddled foreman with a grudge against the boss. The trio has good fun with the film noir send-up, but they can't overcome Rosen's maddeningly convoluted construction. Attempting to impose surprise endings, Rosen ends up merely confusing the issue. 

Much of the fault for what doesn't work lies with the director, who cast the ensemble piece largely with community theatre actors-- which means that half the cast is incapable of connecting word with emotion in any genuine way. That's bad enough for even a well-constructed play, but the results are disastrous for this one, which offers no throughline of story to carry us. The most successful moments, in fact, occur when Rosen settles in with a character and allows something real to happen. But those moments are few. The rest of the time the play just sits there for us to gape at, like a nasty traffic accident, until we gather our thoughts and realize we really ought to be somewhere else. 

For a true flavor of Hopper, go to the National Gallery, where three of Hopper's works are on display. Or better still, visit The Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, which boasts the largest collection of Hopper paintings, sketches, and etchings in the world-a gift of the Hopper estate. 
by Lynn Rosen 
Directed by Michelle T. Hall  

With Lisa Adams, Carlos Bustamante, Julei DeMeule, Michael Miyazaki, Craig Pearman, Suzanne Richard, Don Scime, Mia Whang, Julie Wolcott. 
Set Design: Greg Mitchell 
Lighting Design: Allen Grimm 
Costume Design: Andrea Sarubbi 
Sound Design: Ron Oshima 
Studio Theatre Secondstage, 1333 P Street, NW 
Studio Website:
Opened Oct. 21, closes Nov. 12, 2000.  
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Oct. 24 based on an Oct. 21 performance. 

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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