To answer a question commonly asked by college applications and stoned people: The historical figure I’d invite to dinner is Gertrude Stein. I’d be the waiter, even. I want to see firsthand what made her so fascinating to young men. Not content with winning Ernest Hemingway over, she went on to bond with a group of GIs in France after WWII and to write a book about them, a novella in dialogue (how that woman resisted categorization!), called “Brewsie and Willie.”
Travis Preston, the dean of CalArts, along with Marissa Chibas and Erik Ehn, has adapted the text as a play, and he also directs. Originally performed in 2010, “Brewsie and Willie” is being revived for Radar L.A.
The set, by Efren Delgadillo Jr., is stunning. He’s transformed a loft in downtown L.A. into a military no man’s land, hanging parachutes across the ceiling, piling the floor with sandbags, using the back wall, with its gorgeously oversized windows (missing a pane or two) for projection designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter’s images.
All of the cast and crew are associated with CalArts, either as current or past students or as members of Poor Dog Group, a company founded by CalArts graduates. They're an impressive bunch. I was especially taken with the two lead actors, Jonney Ahmanson as Brewsie and Brad Culver as Willie. Both are convincing and verbally dexterous, and Culver’s punchy physicality put me in mind of the young Al Pacino. I was similarly smitten with the vivid Andrew Gilbert. But nobody on stage is phoning it in. They're acting even when they're not talking: dancing, climbing, disrobing, playing instruments.
Stein’s text doesn’t always live up to the intensity of the performances. A group of soldiers and military nurses, after the war has ended but before demobilization, worry about their future. What will the America they will go home to be like? They seem mostly angry about the Industrial Revolution, which they blame for making human beings into “job chasers,” but their proclamations are so Steinian in their vagueness and circularity that it’s not always clear what they’re driving at.
“Go easy, and if you can’t go easy, go as easy as you can,” one of the nurses advises the group. It’s a charming remark, but when dozens of similar adages are shouted in rapid succession, accompanied by the anguished brays of a saxophone (played by Andrew Conrad), they can be overwhelming. Although the vigor of the performances keeps the energy high during even long debates about economic phenomena, I wondered if a quieter approach might be more effective from time to time. Or if these passionate and talented companies should bestow their fierce energies on a more dramatic work of art.
"Brewsie and Willie," Los Angeles Street Loft, 533 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, and Wednesday-June 26. $30. Information: brownpapertickets.com/event/178251. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Photo: "Brewsie and Willie." Credit: Scott Groller