There have been plays that thematically exploited a famous painting. There have been biographical plays about painters. There even has been a play set totally in an L.A. art gallery. But seldom have theater and the art world been so intuitively and artfully wedded as in director-playwright Susan J. Emshwiller’s dramatic evocation of American painter Edward Hopper in her perfectly titled “Brush Strokes” at the Met Theatre.
Scenic artist Rebeca Lee Roberts, set designer Kelly Deco and costume designer Denise Caplan have carefully re-created, with precise attention to mood and texture, six of Hopper’s paintings between 1931 and 1957. The resourceful Emshwiller turns each into a short play, individually named after the paintings (“Hotel by a Railroad,””Four Lane Road,””Room in New York,” etc.).
As the brush strokes alternately unroll on canvas scrims, revealing Hopper’s requisite sense of mystery and stark loneliness, the paintings’ impersonal, impassive figures materialize onstage. Hopper purists will not be offended.
Emshwiller carries the art/drama synergy to the max. The result, enlivened by a fine, 12-member cast, is both respectful of Hopper and emotionally urgent, catching the dilemmas, boredom and frustration in his work.
The actors are dressed and coiffed in the exact clothes and hairstyles in the paintings and literally emerge from the furniture painted on the canvas walls.
The palettes unfold with disarming directness: Martha Gehman and Tom Bower’s sexual dance in “Western Hotel,” Maxine Fay James and William Mesnik’s poignant estrangement in “Sea Watchers,” David Clennon and Lynn Milgram’s cold-hearted lovers in “Hotel by a Railroad,” Kim Gillingham and Wayne Pere’s flavorful pickup sage in “Hotel Room.” One play, “Four Lane Road,” set at a gas station pump and featuring David Schultz’s embittered father, captures an amazing sense of physical range and distance.
Under the paintings’ clean, orderly lines, turmoil and tension bubble like the witches brew in “Macbeth.” In the production’s most daring plot, “Room in New York,” small-time depression-era losers (Sarah Lee Hoffman and Mark Brady) wrangle over what to do with the kidnapped baby in the basement.
Hopper (1892-1967), a quiet man with deep feelings, might love this show.