Sometimes a picture, even a real important one, ain't worth a thousand words.
Excuse my English, but the characters in Douglas Steinberg's play "Nighthawks" don't talk so good.
They're not supposed to. They're meant to be the figures from Edward Hopper's painting with the same title. You know the one -- the 1940s diner scene that was later travestied in the widely reproduced "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" poster with Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
The original features just a bunch of regulars at a greasy spoon in Greenwich Village, looking lonely and a little rough around the edges, like maybe they don't have the dime for the cup of coffee they just ordered and will have to put it on their tabs again.
"Nighthawks" is a painting that oozes sad mystery, an image from a long-ago America in which people didn't go spilling their secrets on "Oprah" and "Dr. Phil," though they probably could have given them an earful.
Steinberg's play, which opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, tries to fill us in on the characters' back stories. How did they get to this alienated place in their lives? Alone late at night with a few uncommunicative others, they could be workers with irregular hours, though the empty street outside hints at a deeper social rift.
These people need a writer to do for them what Joseph Mitchell from the old New Yorker did for Joe Gould: observe them open-mindedly. That they don't yet exist in three dimensions only underscores their need for someone with an imagination big enough to hear what they really sound like.
What they shouldn't have to put up with is a writer filling them with phony talk from an all-time bad Joan Crawford melodrama. But storytelling of the less hackneyed kind doesn't seem like Steinberg's strong suit.
He tries to hatch a Raymond Chandler-esque plot out of his material, but all he has is enough for a skit. A weird one at that. Like one of those daring bits from the early "Saturday Night Live" that went on too long and made you chuckle once or twice in a creepy way.
But the nuttiness here clocks in at more than two hours, and the contrivances are taken way too seriously.
"Nighthawks" begins promisingly enough. But that's mostly because Donna Marquet's set brings the somberly colorful painting to life with its brown counter and yellow walls, Rand Ryan's lighting captures just the right noirish hues and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's costumes seem close to the ones Hopper eternally dressed his subjects in.
The director, Stefan Novinski, has one great gimmick: He asks his actors to hold their positions at the end of certain scenes, so the play temporarily goes back to being a canvas. It's one of the best things about the production if only because everyone gets to take a breather from the awful dialogue.
The talented performers, all of whom make striking visual impressions, include Dan Castellaneta as the diner attendant, an especially vivid Colette Kilroy as the woman in red, Brian T. Finney as the guy in the suit sitting next to her and Morgan Rusler as the enigmatic customer with his back to us.
Steinberg introduces a few characters of his own to puff up his half-baked tale. Suffice it to say a crucial plot point involves a stolen side of black-market beef that has the mob pretty angry. Interested in hearing more?
Here's an excerpt from one of the play's would-be poetic moments, a meditation on ants that have been swarming ever since the purloined meat arrived. The lines are spoken by Castellaneta's character and something tells me that they're meant to have symbolic meaning:
"[I]t's like a crisis with these ants now, right.... They're not just wanderin' in circles no more, no, they're fighting and stealin' and hacking and ... just sorta wanderin' off aimless-like with no direction.... I tell ya, Sam, it's like a dog-eat-dog world with them ants, know what I mean? A dog-eat-dog world."
The Hopper painting is indeed worth a thousand words. Just not these.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Sept. 24
Price: $20 to $40
Contact: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Running time: (213) 628-2772