Donna Marquet's setting looks right, but everything else goes wrong in Douglas Steinberg's clumsy dramatization of Edward Hopper's 1942 painting "Nighthawks." Some see despair, others menace in Hopper's iconic depiction of three lonely customers and a counterman in a harshly lit diner interior.

Donna Marquet’s setting looks right, but everything else goes wrong in Douglas Steinberg’s clumsy, interminable dramatization of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” receiving its world premiere at the Douglas Theater. Some see despair, others menace in Hopper’s iconic depiction of three lonely customers and a counterman in a harshly lit diner interior. But all TV scribe Steinberg (“Boston Public,” “Psych”) sees is the opportunity for cheap gags in his first act and over-the-top melodrama in the second.

As the author would have it, painting’s red-headed woman is Mae (Colette Kilroy), diner co-owner with counterman husband Quig (Dan Castellaneta). She occupies a stool next to Sam (Brian T. Finney), a hotel bellhop whom she threw over years ago while he recuperated from polio. Now she makes no secret of her contempt for both men.

Kilroy invests Mae with one-note bitterness and vulgarity from beginning to end. She directs venom at everyone, but the silent Customer (Morgan Rusler) earns special bile solely because he keeps sketching her on a napkin, even though she fancies herself an ex-showgirl and surely would welcome an artist’s attention.

A less likely, less palatable interpretation of Hopper’s people is difficult to imagine. Things get even more peculiar when new characters are brought in: Lucy (Kelly Karbacz), Mae’s allegedly sweet-young-thing niece, played as a coarse bubblehead; Clive (Joe Fria), Lucy’s blind date, introduced merely for late-inning plot points; and Jimmy Nickels (Dennis Cockrum), a stuttering mob boss.

Unbilled co-star is a side of beef, the fulcrum of the plot (don’t ask), which when dressed up as a drunken customer actually gets the only genuinely earned laughs of the night.

“Nighthawks” commits most of the perennial mistakes of first plays, starting with exposition laid on with a trowel. (“Lucy? My niece?” is how we learn that Lucy is Mae’s niece.) Character logic is all over the place, as if pages came in from different plays. Quig goes for sheepish laughs when agreeing to let Sam step out with Mae, but later shouts, “You been messing with my wife and it hurts me,” as if surprised by the betrayal. Scenes are peppered with unmotivated (and poorly executed) slaps and punches, just to get a little excitement going.

Quig seems to be the only decent fellow in the bunch, until out of the blue he, too, starts cursing and roughing up his sole paying customer.

The only consistency comes in the nasty edge Mae puts on every line, even spitting at one whom she will shortly importune to help her get out of dutch with the mob.

Much of the action is at odds with Hopper’s pristine setting. Despite her complaint that in the diner “there’s grease in the air, it gets under my skin,” Mae lies supine on the (frequently polished) counter at whim, and others sit readily up there with their feet near the food. No one seems to care whether any patrons will come by.

Director Stefan Novinski creates no sense of latenight fatigue, forcing the cast to run laps around the counter and allowing them to shout everything, including intimate confidences, in thick “Guys & Dolls” accents.

Painting famously isolates its setting from any exterior life, yet production sees fit to include numerous passing-traffic sound effects and outdoor interactions, even a sidewalk pas de deux.

There’s exactly one affecting moment: a speech by Sam, nicely executed by Finney, about the indignities of being a bellhop.

Otherwise play teeters precipitously throughout between farce and kitchen-sink realism, derailing completely in its final half-hour as the mob seeks its revenge.

Mae is confronted with a ghastly Sophie’s Choice that aud is expected to accept with a straight face, and that inspires the final Hopperian tableau — even though we have already seen that tableau previously re-created for laughs. Trying to have it both ways, play ends up having none of it at all.

Nighthawks

Kirk Douglas Theater; 317 seats; $40 top

Production

A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in two acts by Douglas Steinberg. Directed by Stefan Novinski.

Creative

Set, Donna Marquet; lighting, Rand Ryan; costumes, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; music, Michael Roth; production stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened, reviewed Sept. 6, 2006; runs through Sept. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Quig - Dan Castellaneta Jimmy Nickels - Dennis Cockrum Sam - Brian T. Finney Clive - Joe Fria Lucy - Kelly Karbacz Mae - Colette Kilroy The Customer - Morgan Rusler
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