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Nighthawks Play Review: New Twist on a Classic Painting

By Jeanette Prather

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opening and closing scenes of Nighthawks

Since 1942, rumors of total human isolation by admiring audiences worldwide have backlit Edward Hopper's famous painting, Nighthawks.

Speculations on the lives of these solemn characters mixed with variations of how and why these people are left so forlorn in an all-American diner during the jazz era of Greenwich Village have plagued art-lovers everywhere.

One interpretation, or answer, to this painting comes from Douglas Steinberg and is played by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles. The play provides intriguing insight into the fantasy world of these tormented souls and unveils a warped scenario depicted by Steinberg's seven-person cast.

Quig (Castellaneta) and Mae (Kilroy) working it out

This twisted peek behind the scenes of a swingin' society where a greasy diner is host to the characters' deepest motives, struggles and eventual downfalls, shatters the audience's comfort zones and pushes reality to the edge.

"I thought it was really neat when the curtains opened," said Hopper admirer and L.A. painter, Marco Greco, "I felt myself slipping into the story of the painting."

lover's quarrel

As the curtain rises, a human still life of Nighthawks is portrayed by actors Colette Kilroy (Mae), Dan Castellaneta (Quig), Brian Finney (Sam) and Morgan Rusler (the Customer).

These four mentally scattered figures pose steadily in the desolate diner within the crisp 1940s under hovering fluorescent illumination and imprisoned by their own agendas.

As the story begins to unfold, the audience sees Steinberg's elucidation of Hopper's Nighthawks as anything but ordinary.

"The director just wanted to get neat characters on stage and give them interesting situations to deal with," said Morgan Rusler, the actor who plays The Customer, "My character needs to get to know the people in the diner so that he could paint them in their setting."

The Customer (Rusler) paying his dues

Douglas places each character in extreme scenarios and dives right into the heart of Nighthawks with inevitable twists and spirals that an art admirer would see as parallels to Hopper's painting.

"In his Last Poems, A. E. Housman (1859-1936) speaks of being 'a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made,'" according to online art research archive, artchive.com, "That was what Hopper felt - and what he conveys so bitterly."

However, according to artic.edu (Art Institute of Chicago and present home of Nighthawks), "Hopper denied that he purposely infused any of his paintings with symbols of isolation and emptiness, he acknowledged of Nighthawks that, 'unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.'"

Whatever the theory is, unanimous agreements that Hopper succeeded in portraying these characters as isolated and separate from each other despite shared space, hold majority ranking.

Sam (Finney) and Mae in the dark

Artchive.com, artic.com, and ibiblio.org (WebMuseum online) all agree that deliberate or not, Hopper's depiction of Nighthawks renders the viewer emotional and lonely.

With no evidence of a door to enter the diner, the passer-by simply stares from the light saturated but otherwise dark streets of New York in at the four solitary people exposed under the harsh rays. Each of the persons inside is overwhelmed in thought and seeps the universal irony of a tight human proximity with no real connections collaborated with the sleek and innovative decor of the diner; alone.

The viewer must then make the viable character assumptions and create stories behind the scenario.

"With Nighthawks you always want to have the narrative, it sort of begs for us to tell its story," said Kymberly Pinder, an associate professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to NPR.

Jimmy Nickels (Dennis Cockrum) and Sam

With such conviction, Nighthawks has managed to lure admirers from all over into its unique frozen state of emotional imagery.

"Hopper's painting is so powerful, I'm curious as to where [the play] will go," said one woman, Chris Hansen during intermission on it's opening night, "it hasn't hit the poignancy of what the artwork portrays yet."

After intermission, however, was when the play really took its turns.

Sam and Mae stroll down memory lane

"Although there were few inaccuracies, like a plaid shirt when the boys back then really wore white T-shirts, the play did a great job of illustrating how life really was back then," said Ina Friedman, native to the World War II era, "the Black Market and mobsters were definitely present during that time."

Lucy (Kelly Karbacz) and Clive (Joe Fria) dance the night away

"Everyone's been so much fun to work with and the stage chemistry's great," said Morgan Rusler, The Customer, "the director's terrific and very open to our ideas. I'm really looking forward to where this play is headed."

Whatever your take and interpretation of Hopper's most renown painting, be sure to check out Nighthawks for yourself at the Kirk Douglas Theatre every Tuesday through Sunday until September 24th, or check out Center Theatre Group online by clicking http://www.taperahmanson.com

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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