Douglas Steinberg’s Nighthawks, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, takes us inside the 1940s New York diner where Edward Hopper painted his legendary canvas of the same name. The play had been on Steinberg’s shelf for some 20 years when the playwright, out of the blue, submitted it to Center Theatre Group. Literary manager Pier Carlo Talenti liked the play so much, he walked it up a flight of stairs to the office of artistic director Michael Ritchie, who also liked it so much, he said “let’s just do it.” In a big theater with union salaries, no less.

To put this in context, Ritchie’s the guy who committed the main stage of the Mark Taper Forum to Culture Clash’s play Water and Power,sight unseen, on the basis of an idea he liked and on Culture Clash’s track record, reputation and success working with director Lisa Peterson and dramaturge John Glore. Ritchie takes risks and follows his gut. That’s a good thing, or can be. It was sure a good thing for Culture Clash, whose play (which closed last week) did just fine, playing to packed houses and nightly standing ovations, and making back slightly more than its expenses at the box office. In the theater, that’s nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes gamblers win.

Ritchie’s gut also tells him that the long and arduous process of developing plays tries his patience (though Peterson, Glore and playwright Richard Montoya developed Water and Power for more than a year). Many audiences and critics are furious with Nighthawks,which could use some development. It was savaged in Variety and the L.A. Times for being by turns too static, too implausible and too melodramatic, while the Times’ readers’-reviews section has theater patrons condemning Ritchie for choosing such a crappy play when there are so many worthy plays and playwrights going unproduced. That’s like shouting at your spouse for buying a losing lottery ticket when there are so many winning tickets to be had. If the theater were more of a science and less of a gamble, everyone would be happier, but that’s not how the stage has ever worked. Buying a ticket to a new play is like playing the lottery, but on the rare occasions they pay out, they move our theater forward.

This is why the indignation of some audiences and critics against Nighthawks, and against Ritchie’s impulse to stage it, is so ridiculous. The man chose to premiere a new play in a large theater that Gordon Davidson built for new plays. Good for both of them. Ritchie chose it not because the author was the hot new Yale Drama School graduate of the month, which is the cowardly, closed-door policy employed by most of our theaters. Ritchie didn’t even know who Steinberg was, or that his play was two decades old. He produced it because there was something about it he loved. When producers grow too squeamish to follow such impulses, we might as well stay at home and watch Seinfeld reruns.

The curtain rises on the painting’s striking, stark mise en scène, with its four characters: a couple in the back, Sam and Mae (Brian T. Finney and Colette Kilroy); the white-clad cook, Quig (Dan Castellaneta), leaning behind the counter; and the back of a mysterious fellow — ostensibly Hopper himself (Morgan Rusler) — whom Steinberg names The Customer. Donna Marquet’s set has the diner’s grimy, yellow back wall chiseling out into a black void, underscoring the painting’s existential austerity.

The painting, any painting, presents an invitation to crawl inside the canvas with one’s own experiences and presumptions. The images may be on the canvas, but activity comes from the viewer’s imagination. Among the challenges for a playwright aiming to bring a classic tableau to active life is creating a world sufficiently persuasive to override associations and evocations that the painting triggers. A drama based on such a famous and striking painting as Nighthawks jangles our preconceptions as soon as any character starts speaking, or moving. People who know the painting already have a play, or the shadows of one, worked out in their minds. Whereas much of the action in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George leads toward bringing Georges Seurat’s painting (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) to life, Steinberg’s plot starts by bringing Hopper’s Nighthawks to life, and then turns it into a somewhat pokey revenge melodrama. I suspect that this imposition is among the reasons that the play has upset so many people.

Nighthawks slowly unveils a love triangle among Quig, Mae, and Sam, who, to Mae’s chagrin and with Quig’s approval, is responsible for delivering black-market beef stolen from the Mob. (There’s a war on and meat is rationed.) Meanwhile, The Customer observes and infuriates the owners and denizens with his stoic manner, his implicit superiority as he sketches, and his autistically fastidious rituals of choosing the same stool and slurping his coffee.

Stefan Novinski directs with an operatic stylization, so that each action settles into a new, artfully considered tableau. A pair of characters from beyond the painting — Mae’s niece, Lucy (Kelly Karbacz), and Clive (Joe Fria), the young rogue she’s dating against her aunt’s wishes — provide a subplot. Add to this Steinberg’s noir New Jersey text and you’ve got Clifford Odets dialogue snapping along beside the visual desolation and unspoken menace of a Pinter play, plus a splash of clandestine romance out of William Inge. This incongruous blend hits a peak when a stolen side of beef, covered in a jacket and hat, gets propped up on the outside of a counter. As Pinter so aptly dramatized, terror lies not in violence but in the threat of violence. For much of Act 1, the characters and plot languorously unfold with visual compositions beautifully rendered by Novinski and lighting designer Rand Ryan.

Unfortunately, the play bloats and unravels in Act 2. Another character from beyond the painting staggers into the diner — a thug, Jimmy Nickels (Dennis Cockrum), who makes the threatened violence manifest. Quig, Sam and Mae find themselves extorted by the Mob, and some of their actions to obtain desperately needed cash strain credulity. Meanwhile, Novinski’s ice sculpture melts into a melodramatic showdown, as though Steinberg is gleefully contriving action like a kid at a pinball machine, rather than weighing what that action might mean philosophically. There’s also the unanswered question of why, in 1942, young, smarmy Clive isn’t off fighting Nazis or the Japanese.

All of which deflates the hopes for a great American drama spun from a great American painting. Home, a tender play by David Storey that shares the stasis inherent in Nighthawks, consists of simple, deceptively inane dialogues that reveal intimacy and icy gulfs between the eccentric characters. Ever so slowly, it becomes clear that the characters are residents of a lunatic asylum, which is an emblem for the country (Great Britain) and the world.

That kind of restraint and elegant simplicity might salvage Steinberg’s play, that kind of commitment to a point of view rather than a course of action. Meanwhile, the acting is superb, the premise is glorious and the promise remains strong. When Sunday in the Park With George opened off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, only the first act was written, and that was patchy. CTG’s production of Nighthawks similarly offers a preview of what this play can be.

NIGHTHAWKS | By DOUGLAS STEINBERG | CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (213) 628-2772 | Through September 24

LA Weekly