by Margaret Quamme
An iconic painting and an equally classic film noir plot combine in to make the delightfully wry comedy “Nighthawks.”
In the latest production by Red Herring Theatre, local playwright Johnrick Hole brings Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks at the Diner” to life, casting the four figures in the painting as characters in a quirky murder mystery.
Hole’s trim, well-structured script, which clocks in at about 70 minutes without an intermission, begins with an off-stage death, that of Bennie the bookie, who is found a couple blocks away from the diner that serves as the single set, a purloined fork lodged in his eye.
Investigating the case is hard-boiled police detective Sarge (Erik C. Bobbitt), who doesn’t let his pining for the career of a song-and-dance man get in the way of his investigations.
His suspicions are aimed at dimly determined diner counterman Jerry (Mike Writtenberry), whose resentment towards those who don’t properly appreciate the pies he bakes and pushes on customers leads him into explosive anger; smarmily appealing and secretly desperate gambler Don (Nick Martin); and unpredictable femme fatale Flo (McLane Nagy), whose mysterious relationship with Bennie guides the plot. The four make a seamlessly effective ensemble.
Director Brian A. Palmer keeps the action deadpan, treating even the most absurd plot twists as serious, and allowing comedy to arise naturally out of the interactions of the four characters and repeated motifs, such as Jerry’s increasingly desperate hope that the other three will eventually try his pie, rather than simply drinking endless cups of coffee. If these characters are stereotypes, they don’t know it, and that’s what makes the humor work.
One of the most satisfying scenes, which could have been milked for heavy-handed laughs but instead is treated with insouciant charm, takes off from Sarge’s insistence that dance makes everyone relax, and his luring a reluctant Don into participating in a softshoe number.
Edith Wadkins’ set mimics Hopper’s painting with remarkable precision, at the same time that the counter makes a defined physical space that both separates the characters and forces them together. Likewise, Palmer’s costumes serve to establish connections between the painting and the films the play is parodying – and paying tribute to.
Audiences familiar with Red Herring know that the Franklinton Playhouse is a work in progress. Newcomers should be advised that the budget so far has not included air conditioning, and dress accordingly.
Those willing to take a little heat will be rewarded with a steamy diversion worthy of a summer night.
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