Pageant of Disasters

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The urge to recreate famous paintings is seemingly innate. How many times has Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" been imitated or parodied in photographs, movies, and even at large family dinners? Here in Southern California, that urge has yielded an entire festival devoted to re-creating famous paintings. Each summer, Laguna Beach hosts the "The Pageant of the Masters" where giant, life-size versions of paintings (like "The Last Supper") are recreated with real people in elaborate sets and costumes.

This summer, the Center Theatre Group adds to this tradition with the world premiere of Nighthawks, a play that re-creates Edward Hopper's famous painting of the same name. The curtain goes up and there on stage is the famous diner--complete with a long counter, yellow walls, a soda jerk, and of course, the lady in red. It's a breathtaking tableau... if only the curtain went straight back down a few seconds later.

This still moment is re-created three more times in the next two hours, which only serves to remind one of the vast emptiness that occupies the time between these tableaus. Playwright Douglas Steinberg has invented flimsy characterizations for the people depicted in Hopper's painting--and even he adds a few more--but all of them feel like dime-store imitations of the hardboiled souls that populated 1940's novels.

There's a gangster, a gimp, and even a Ziegfeld girl. (The play also hints that one of the figures in the painting is Hopper himself.) Talented actors try their best to flesh out these two-dimensional roles, but the dialogue--even when well recited--has the stale tang of day-old luncheonette coffee.

Hopper's painting remains iconic because of its quiet stoicism, which gleams like the diner's fluorescent lights. "Nighthawks" was painted in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and it still evokes a sense of eerie quiet-after-the-storm. Yet as the years go on, Hopper's "Nighthawks" has come to represent an entire bygone era, a concrete wonderland that John Cheever so perfectly described as a time "when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat."

This two-hour, talking Nighthawks evokes neither of these themes. If Disneyland came out with a new area in their theme park called Noir Land, a shortened version of this bland slice of nostalgia might work as a sort of urban Tiki Room; but at one of L.A.'s major venues for new plays, Steinberg's glorified radio drama is major disappointment. If it weren't for the gimmick of setting the action in a famous painting, the story and characters would have never earned a second glance.

This painterly problem also afflicts another show running here in Los Angeles this month. Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos is one of western civilization's greatest dramas--so much so that it inspired no less than five musical adaptations in the 19th century. The last version, composed by Verdi, is one of the few operas where the drama is equal to the music. Los Angeles Opera is presenting Verdi's difficult-to-stage Don Carlo. The singing is first-rate, but director Ian Judge makes this vivid saga of court intrigue about as flat as the aforementioned Nighthawks. Judge's set consists solely of a few arches, above which are large, brutal images that suggest the gruesome details of Goya's famous painting, "The Third of May 1808." What's more, Judge has dressed almost every character in black period costumes. The result is that this Don Carlo--despite its stirring music--resembles a fancy doll show, starring cut-outs from a 17th century Flemish portrait.

Luckily, not every show that blends theater with the visual arts is as boring as watching paint dry. Steven Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, a musical about Seraut and his pointillist masterpiece (that hangs alongside Hopper's "Nighthawks" in the Art Institute of Chicago) is one of the greatest portraits of an artist in any medium. It's coming to L.A. courtesy of Reprise!... but not until January. Don Carlo is in rep at LA Opera until October 1; Nighthawks runs at the Douglas through September 24.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.