A play production born of economic stimulus money

Before they vote in November, Americans are likely to be asked a $787-billion question: Has the country gotten much benefit from the economic stimulus plan President Obama and Congressional Democrats pushed through last year?

Pundits, politicians and party functionaries surely will be putting in their own two cents, if they haven’t already.

Angelenos, however, have an invitation starting Thursday to see one very tangible outgrowth of the federal spending meant to create jobs amid a frightening economy: a play.

The show is “Brewsie and Willie,” adapted from a novella Gertrude Stein published a month before her death in 1946. It’s being done by California Institute of the Arts’ Center for New Performance in association with Poor Dog Group, an experimental theater company made up of former CalArts acting students who graduated in 2007.

A $50,000 chunk of the production budget is job-creation money from the feds — one one-thousandth of the $50 million the economic stimulus bill set aside to boost employment in the arts, after Congressional debate as to whether the work artists do actually has any economic importance.

The pay is hardly lavish — less than $3,000 each, on average, for eight actors and nine designers, technicians and other behind-the-scenes personnel, covering about three months’ work. But without it, says Carol Bixler, producing director of the Center for New Performance, “we would never have been able to do this show.”

In applying for the economic stimulus grant, administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, CalArts emphasized that $50,000 for “Brewsie and Willie” would put money in the pockets and a credential on the résumés of young theater artists trying to gain a foothold on their careers at a time when the prospects for recent graduates in many fields, including the arts, have been darkened by the Great Recession.

The play resonates uncannily with the moment, says Travis Preston, the Center for New Performance artistic director who staged its all-female “King Lear” and a “Macbeth” featuring a lone actor, Tony-winner Stephen Dillane, with a jazz trio. For more than a decade, Preston had wanted to direct “Brewsie and Willie,” never thinking until the bottom fell out of the global economy that Stein’s concerns about the working lives awaiting GIs who had just won World War II would speak so immediately to the job anxieties of their children and grandchildren.

The play, adapted from Stein’s text by Preston, fellow professor Marissa Chibas and former CalArts theater dean Erik Ehn, is spoken entirely by American servicemen and women waiting to be sent home from France. Along with earthier interests, they talk obsessively about their anxious return to civilian life.

Would the Great Depression simply resume, leaving no work for them? And if prosperity broke out, would life become all about getting and spending? While worrying over practical realities, Stein’s characters delve deeply into how they might make their postwar lives — and American life — meaningful.

Stein was inspired by her talks with GIs who had liberated France, where she and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, had lived together as American expatriates since 1908. After Nazi Germany conquered France in 1940, the couple’s welfare, as Americans and Jews, became precarious. A friendly French official who collaborated with the Germans made sure they remained unscathed. When victorious American soldiers arrived, Stein lavished upon them the hospitality she’d grown famous for as hostess and grand dame of a circle that included Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

“Brewsie and Willie” champions the idea that independent thinking and speaking and “pioneering” action, rather than economic security, are the essence of the American experiment. Brewsie, his unit’s resident philosopher, fears that a “job-minded” quest for solvency and security is all that lies ahead.

Even though “Brewsie and Willie” may represent the notoriously oblique Stein at her most accessible, Preston knew that performing it would require a dedicated group of young actors willing to put in the effort to memorize and master lines with idiosyncratic cadences full of repeating words. Having kept up with his former students in Poor Dog Group, he was confident they had the chops and commitment to pull it off.

The group’s founders had studied under him before earning bachelor’s degrees in 2007, and afterward Preston attended shows they wrote and staged themselves while scratching out livings from odd jobs. To share expenses, Poor Dog Group sometimes lived communally, including a spell as tenants of a downtown warehouse-cum-performance space.

“These actors are exactly the age of these soldiers, and they are the best actors I know of that age,” Preston said.

Jesse Bonnell, Poor Dog’s artistic director and playwright, says that tackling “Brewsie and Willie” is an important step forward — a first shot at “taking a piece of literature” and running with it toward the group’s goal of establishing itself as a font of experimental work “that doesn’t have to be underground at a fringe theater.”

Because of what he calls “these Obama bucks,” Bonnell says, ensemble members who had been known to rehearse from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. so as not to lose their day jobs have been able to join Preston for a professional, six-days-a-week rehearsal process. “Brewsie and Willie,” which opened Thursday, is being produced in the seventh floor penthouse of a downtown building, on a set that features about 1,000 sandbags on the floor, and an unfurled parachute — a leftover set piece from the group’s production of the 1950s space race satire, “The Internationalists” — hanging from the ceiling. The lights of downtown L.A. high-rises shine through the windows, doubling as a Gallic cityscape for the show’s hour-plus running time.

Bonnell, who plays a soldier inclined to overdo the cognac, says Poor Dog Group appreciates how its share of jobs-stimulus money has afforded a taste of the solid, working life that’s possible — albeit elusive — in big-budget regional theaters, but exceedingly rare for American experimental ensembles. “We feel humbled and lucky to have this job, one that feeds our souls,” he said. “It’s an awesome job.”