Chicago BeAt…’The (edward) Hopper Project,’ a world premiere play
“Nighthawks” and other masterpieces from the late American realist painter Edward Hopper come to life and are given context in WNEP Theater’s “The (edward) Hopper Project.” Despite incredible ambitions and grand intentions, the world premiere production, about a day in the life of several Brooklyn residents, 1952, doesn’t quite work. Some scenes are strong. Others are flat. Several passages capture the look and feel of Hopper’s paintings. Others – like a zany bit about a pigeon-shooting, naughty bits-flashing mad woman – definitely do not. And the show is at least 25 minutes too long. But in its failures, and strokes of success, “Project” nevertheless makes you appreciate Hopper’s exquisite artistry – his use of light, his attention to detail, and his devotion to seemingly simple scenes that evoke the beautiful complication of human nature.
Director Don Hall sets the action on a single, two-story block in Brooklyn. In one corner there’s the auditorium of a movie theater, much like the one portrayed in Hopper’s “New York Movie.” On the exact opposite end sits Phillies, the all-night diner featured in Hopper’s most famous work “Nighthawks.” The recreations are mostly accurate, even if the sets themselves by Heath Hays are a bit crude in naked lighting. Florescent bulbs in the evening scenes really bring the rooms to life; like Hopper’s paintings, the settings and characters inhabiting them bask in an alluring glow.
Hall lets many scenes blur one into another, stages several at the same time and even has his actors carry out scenes in silence during intermission. The approach owes as much to the ensemble showcases of Robert Altman as it does to the voyeurism of everyday life celebrated in Hopper’s canvases. But with any ensemble piece, you run a great risk of unevenness; even the impeccable Altman delivered duds. And while “The (edward) Hopper Project” was conceived by one person, Jen Ellison, it was written by an additional eight other scribes, further increasing the chances that the show would be a mixed bag, which it is.
Some scenes do capture the sensation of loneliness or longing often exuded by Hopper’s paintings. The best storyline of the bunch involves a fragile woman named Verbena (Merrie Greenfield, also one of the writers) returning to Brooklyn, where she confronts her sister Betty (Marsha Harman), and tries to avoid running into the husband that she left (Kevin Gladish). The beginning of the scene has Betty all dressed up, waiting alone in an automat – an image reflective of Hopper’s melancholy 1927 portrait, “Automat.” Another effective exchange begins in an apartment living room just like the one featured in Hopper’s 1932 painting “Room in New York.” Like the two central figures in that painting, a husband (Regan Davis) is reading a newspaper as his solitary wife (Lori Gross) plays a few notes on the piano. While in the same room, the characters’ lack of affection indicates that they are worlds’ apart, a sensation confirmed in a sharp Act Two exchange where the wife runs into a former lover (Jacob A. Ware) for a few fleeting, passionate moments. Similar to Hopper’s works, the drama in these scenes is subtle but stirring, yet even these highlights can’t live up to the greatness of their inspiration, although to be fair, how could it? It turns out that the ambiguity in Hopper’s paintings is more compelling than explicit theatrical scenes in identical settings.
Other passages carry little punch, including several scenes staged at Phillies; they may be believable slices of life a la Hopper, but there’s little about them to grab your attention. By contrast, Hopper’s renditions of the simplest human acts always manage to be beguiling. Again, less is more. Then there are other scenes that are jarringly out of sync with the art and the play – what’s a zany bit with a BB-gun firing nutty neighbor doing in a piece of realist theater? Further still, an ongoing, sweet bit about two flirts trying and failing to talk to each other ends with the happy couple suddenly, inexplicably dazed and confused in a frozen scene in Phillies, straight out of “Nighthawks.” That painting might evoke different things to different people, but I doubt anyone would say it represents puppy love.
WNEP deserves credit for putting on such an ambitious production, and even they don’t succeed overall, the show’s very concept and elements of its staging should inspire any theatergoer to take a look at Hopper’s art – especially with his most iconic painting, “Nighthawks,” hanging right around the corner at The Art Institute.
“The (edward) Hopper Project” is performed at Chicago DCA Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays -Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays until Feb. 21. There is no show on Friday, Feb. 12. Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors and students. Available here.