Circle Theatre

Evan Blake’s two one-act plays Nighthawks and The Night Cafe are as straightforward as the Edward Hopper painting that inspired them. In both plays–being presented together in an evening called simply “Nighthawks”–lonely, disillusioned urban types come together by accident at a late-night diner, where the unfinished emotional business of the day rises to the surface, only to fall on uninterested ears. The plays, like the painting, are about confession without absolution.

Blake isn’t terribly original in the strategy he employs to build his plots: he pumps his characters full of alcohol and desperation until they can’t help but pour their souls out to anyone who will listen. The two pieces have nearly identical structures, making the double bill seem rather redundant. But Blake is a strong enough playwright to make familiar material comfortable and entertaining.

Blake paints his dramatic world in broad strokes. Nighthawks, set in a diner in 1943 (Hopper’s painting was created in 1942), brings together what the playwright refers to in his press packet as B-movie types: Gil (Dean Kharasch), the small-time hustler; Donna (Joy Ovington), the woman with a rough marriage and feelings for another man; Jimmy (John Randy Hoole), the squeaky-clean soda jerk; and Wray (Elliot Wimbush), the stranger. Using Jimmy as a sounding board, the characters spend an hour revealing their struggles against the emptiness and routine of life. Their revelations culminate (based on some racist remarks Gil makes) in an explosive confrontation between Gil and Wray.

The play’s theme is utter stagnation, and the image of hawks circling in the sky, always looking but never going after anything, comes up twice–once it’s described by one of the characters as he reminisces, and later all the characters see hawks circling outside the window. The characters embody that stagnation effectively, but their relationships lack an underlying tension; while Hopper’s painting is all contrast and sharp angles, Blake’s play is soft and meandering. This looseness gives Nighthawks a human quality that’s lovely at times but makes it hard to sustain the play for an hour.

Nighthawks walks a delicate line between the emblematic and the cliched, and understandably it stumbles many times along the way. The actors all speak in sparse film noir dialogue and wear their characters like starched clothing; this intentionally artificial style works when the actors underplay their emotions, attempting to conceal their pain, but too often an unpleasant memory–a failed love, a lost dream, a guilt-ridden deed–brings about a lot of shifting eyes and twitching hands. Not only does this kind of acting undercut the emotional authenticity of the scene, but it works against the cool, reserved film noir world Blake has created.

Nighthawks seems more like a theatrical exercise–that of making a painting come to life–than any kind of vital artistic statement. The Night Cafe, on the other hand, set in what could be the same diner 40 years later, doesn’t break any new ground but reaches a remarkably powerful emotional peak.

The Night Cafe brings together contemporary urban stock characters: Rhonda (Ovington), the innocent prostitute; Mackie (Wimbush), her big-hearted pimp; Galen (Kharasch), the aspiring actor; and Jamie (Hoole), the disillusioned owner of the diner, who has traded his dreams for financial security. As in Nighthawks, there’s little action except for each character’s confession of some fundamental longing. But unlike Jimmy the soda jerk in Nighthawks, who functions simply as a reason for the others to talk about themselves, Jamie in The Night Cafe is integral to the drama: he and Galen clearly harbor some longstanding resentment against each other.

This crucial difference gives The Night Cafe some dramatic tension, which helps sustain it for nearly an hour. The other characters in the play, unfortunately, aren’t of much dramatic interest; there’s no particular reason to see this moment in their lives as opposed to any other.

But everyone’s acting is better in this play. Wimbush is completely at home as the overly defensive pimp, charming and sophisticated one moment and murderously jealous the next. Hoole’s Jamie and Kharasch’s Galen wonderfully occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, Galen all drunken uninhibitedness and Jamie all well-worn pragmatism. Ovington plays Rhonda like a hyperactive 14-year-old: her acting is broad and exaggerated, but she finds all kinds of levels within her character.

The play’s epiphany is beautifully acted: Galen, who apparently stole Jamie’s lover, Sandy, from him, finally tells Jamie that Sandy is dying of AIDS, and sobs in Jamie’s reluctant arms. This scene demonstrates what Blake does best, making an utterly familiar scene moving and genuine. And while the subject matter of these world-premiere plays makes them feel as though they could have been written years ago, those emotions give them an immediacy that is refreshing.