Theater project holds a mirror up to the recession

Sarah Stephens and Robert Grant rehearse a fight scene for one of the plays in "The Great Recession."
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Two young actors are rehearsing a pivotal fight scene in a new short play opening tonight at a small theater in Lower Manhattan. They are portraying out-of-work laborers from the Midwest who have been flown to New York to participate in a kill-or-be-killed social experiment that earns the survivor $25,000.

For what feels like a very long minute, the actors struggle, their faces and bodies contorted, over a (fake) knife until finally they crash onto the stage floor. The thump shakes every inch of this 75-seat theater. But that is not what impresses the playwright, Adam Rapp, who is also the director.

“What’s great about what just happened,” Rapp later tells the actors from his front-row perch, “is that we, in the risers, felt that. . . . The more you jump . . . the more we feel this.”

“This,” in this case, is not just blood lust, but the universal desperation of people being swallowed up by financial chaos.

Last winter as the American economy seized up, the Flea Theater commissioned six rising playwrights, all beacons of New York’s off- and off-off-Broadway theater scene, to write 10-minute plays for a series titled “The Great Recession.”

The stories were to be tailored not to fiftysomethings losing a career after decades, but to twentysomethings barely out of college and foundering in a job market nobody prepared them for. The playwrights were given until the end of the summer to see if they could come up with something expressly for the Flea’s young, unpaid acting troupe, the Bats.

At first, Rapp, who has written a dozen plays and several novels, was reluctant to attempt such a grand topic for so brief a time frame.

“When I heard 10 minutes, I thought, ‘Oh, can it be 20?’ ” said Rapp, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

But he got right on it.

“Yes, commissions aren’t that much money, but at this point I’ll take anything,” said Rapp, who was paid $800 for his 12-minute play called “Classic Kitchen Timer.”

That was also sort of the point.

Jim Simpson, the Flea’s artistic director, was as eager to get a youthful outlook on this economic moment as he was to provide artistic expression for playwrights with immense talent and dwindling funds.

Simpson said he wondered, “What are they thinking?”

A stalwart of off-off-Broadway (think avant-garde and cheap tickets), the Flea has made a mission over the last 14 years of not waiting to ask questions about charged contemporary issues, which mainstream theaters often avoid during hard times. The company is best known for such original productions as the post-Sept. 11 play “The Guys,” and for works by A.R. Gurney, who premiered “O Jerusalem,” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during the tense spring of 2003.

“The Guys,” a two-person drama that drew packed houses and later became a movie, not only fulfilled people’s need to understand their responses to what had happened a few blocks south of the Flea’s White Street playhouse, its success also helped steady the company’s finances, which were a disaster as a result of the disaster.

So was the Flea again aiming for a win-win scenario by asking playwrights it had been nurturing to explore the impact of the recent financial crisis as a way both to understand and survive it?

“Oh that we were that canny of businessmen,” said Simpson, laughing and shaking his head in the Flea’s lobby, decorated with framed posters from past plays. “No, here we are reaching for good theater, to see where it takes us.”

With sweet-looking young actors and spare sets, the plays range from Rapp’s starkly apocalyptic drama to Thomas Bradshaw’s absurdly realistic “New York Living.” Only “Unum,” by Will Eno, who was once described as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” takes an encyclopedic stab at the issue -- in all of 20 minutes.

A play within a play, “New York Living” revolves around young theater types obsessed with the usual: sex, winning a Tony Award and real estate. It is, after all, set in New York.

“I’m a big fan of following real estate to understand everything,” said Bradshaw, 29, whose mother was a real estate agent in New Jersey, where he grew up around the corner from a train that got him to Manhattan in half an hour.

One of his “New York Living” characters is a young actress who gets involved with her scene partner and agrees to move in with him for questionable reasons. (It’s either that or live with her parents.)

Anna Greenfield, 23, who plays the compromised actress, said her character reflects the worst of what she sees herself becoming if she lost her part-time job in a Mexican restaurant. “It makes me nauseous, really uncomfortable, to think I would do what she does,” Greenfield said. “You want to have some control over your life.”

During a rehearsal last week in the Flea’s smaller (40-seat) basement-level theater, the director of “New York Living,” Ethan McSweeny, toyed with the idea of having a bell rung offstage every time one of the characters said the word “recession,” just in case the audience forgets -- amid all the groping and grinding, whining and speechifying -- what the play is supposed to be about.

Then he reconsidered. “Hmmmm,” he said, as he watched the male lead struggle with a crucial prop that wasn’t working (a prosthetic device designed to mimic an erection), “we have to be careful not to try to comment on Thomas toooooo much. He’s already such a fiendishly funny writer.”

Instead of using the bell, McSweeny instructed the actors to shoot the audience a split-second look every time they said “recession.” “Underline ‘recession’ just a little more,” he said. “It’s a capital R, as if to say, ‘These are interesting times to be making theater and interesting times . . . to be making out.’ ”

In many ways, the plays strike similar themes of powerlessness and resignation by young people -- not just because of their common topic, but because of the similar circumstances of the authors. Though they themselves are not all young -- Rapp is 41 and Eno is 44 -- the sky is almost always falling in their part of the theater world.

(Bradshaw remains solvent in part by running a theater department at a city college; Rapp and Sheila Callaghan, 36, who wrote “Recess” for the “Great Recession” series, pen scripts for Hollywood. Or as Rapp said, “You have to Robin Hood in the West Coast to keep your cultural life going in New York.”)

A sense of ever looming hardship is telegraphed in Erin Courtney’s sweetly optimistic play, “Severed,” about a romance that flowers between an unlikely duo taking part in an audio documentary about the recession.

“Being an actor is a crap job anyway,” says Michael, one of the characters who (big surprise) is an actor. “I mean financially. So most actors have some family support or they scrap around temping or waiting tables and they keep their cost of living low. You know? So the recession, in a way, doesn’t hit the young actors as hard because we have no money anyway -- and we signed on for that.”

Certainly Sarah Stephens is a blithe example.

She plays Lucy Norwood, who struggles for control of that knife in Rapp’s dark tale. Lucy, who has lost her job at a hog slaughterhouse in East Moline, Ill., is three months behind in her rent and unable to buy medicine she needs when she agrees to come to New York to take part in the perverse competition for $25,000.

“Are you willing to die for that?” a narrator asks Lucy.

“I’m gonna die anyway,” she says.

During a two-hour rehearsal last week, Stephens offered that line in a flat tone of acquiescence.

It turns out that Stephens, like Lucy, is also 26 and from the Midwest. But instead of coming to New York for a last chance at survival, Stephens has come to fulfill a dream. Her agent advised her against it, but she came in April anyway for an apprenticeship at the Flea. (More than 1,000 actors from around the country compete every year for about 60 slots as Bats.)

“I was living check to check doing regional theater in Ohio,” said Stephens, a graduate of Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, “so I figured I could live just as easily check to check in New York and get my chance.”

With a cast of 12, Eno’s “Unum” doesn’t specifically comment on the young or have young characters. But it is set at what would be considered the Great Recession’s ground zero: the government’s currency printing facility. The play attempts to follow the money, a new dollar bill, as it wends its way from the plant, through the lives of people touched by the recession, and into the shredder.

“Unum” is short for e pluribus unum -- out of many, one -- the motto carried by the eagle on the U.S. dollar. At a certain point in the writing, Eno said, he lost track of that bill.

“It became sort of an abstraction, as I think happens if you really think about money and its movement,” he said by e-mail. The play tries to humanize the transactions that sunk the American economy -- the foreclosures and layoffs, the con artists who sold easy credit, and the greed and naivete that led people to believe them.

Printer One, an oddball character, writes merry messages on dollars like “You’re pretty” and “Hi, Mom.” He uses one such missive to cheer Printer Two, who eventually loses his job and home at the same time his wife is expecting a baby and he is caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s.

“We shred millions of dollars a day here,” Printer One later says. “Imagine, you know? All the little stuff -- the ice creams, the movies, going into drugstores. And then you know, poof. Confetti.”

Most of the playwrights said they found inspiration for their plots by thinking about a group of talented people, like the Bats, coping as best they could with what Callaghan described in an e-mail as a “new normal” created by the economic crisis.

Rapp, who lives in the East Village, first witnessed that playing basketball on a community court four or five times a week. As jobs vanished around the city, Rapp noticed core players disappearing, mostly Wall Street types, and new ones, including out-of-work security guards, turning up.

That gave him a way in to his story. He said he imagined unemployed laborers at a meeting, trying to figure out: What next?