The fighting has ended for the title characters in Brewsie and Willie, an adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s rumination on American World War II veterans that opened last night as part of the RADAR L.A. theater festival. But as they wait for their orders, the soldiers fret about the economic fallout of the war and their dim prospects for finding a happy life back home.
Stuck in limbo between the battles of the past and the struggles they anticipate in the future, Brewsie and Willie engage in the kind of freewheeling repartee that characterizes Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But instead of offering esoteric and absurd rants a la Vladimir and Estragon, these G.I.’s break down the intricacies of the industrial revolution and European history, often accompanied by a plaintive saxophone or insistent blues guitar. Episodic and uneven, when Poor Dog Group’s Brewsie and Willie works, it is bracing and thought-provoking. But in the several scenes where it doesn’t, it’s shouty, simplistic and a bit pedantic.
The lead duo’s physical differences mirror their contrasting characters nicely. Copper-haired and stocky, Jonney Ahmanson’s Brewsie pontificates and intellectualizes, while Brad Culver’s Willie is all about action and anger, his dark eyes brooding and slim frame tensed for combat. A supporting cast of soldiers – more stylized caricatures than actual characters – introduce additional angles to the angst they all feel, providing some depth and perspective and marginally increasing dramatic tension. Willie has some undefined animosity toward southerner Jimmie Brock (Jesse Saler sporting a spot-on, understated drawl) and the vaguely socialist Donald Paul (lanky and logical Adam Haas Hunter) ticks everyone off.
A trio of women float in and out of the production, adding a whiff of sexuality that seems to remind the soldiers of the girls they left behind. All have names but each is most commonly addressed as “sister” and they implore Brewsie for nuggets of wisdom with a distracting infantilism.
In the most electrifying moments of the staging by Travis Preston, music moves to the forefront with saxophonist Andrew Conrad constantly wandering the stage and guitaist Andrew Gilbert churning out rockabilly-like riffs. The slow groove backing up the scene makes Brewsie’s extended rant on the rise and fall of industrial England compelling. A highlight of the entire production is the setting, an airy upstairs space at the Los Angeles Loft outfitted by scenic designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr. with flowing parachutes on the ceiling and mounds of sandbags organized into foxholes across the expansive stage. The floor-to-ceiling windows open in places to let in real street noise, and characters occasionally flee to the fire escape.
Brewsie and Willie dances around an existential question: Can anyone ever go home again? Ahmanson and Culver have the sort of winning camaraderie that would allow the exploration of that question in an intriguing way. But Stein’s prose is grounded too firmly in economic theory and historical reality to gather more than sporadic lyrical momentum. By the time the soldiers get their orders to head home, we are more than ready to see them go.
Brewsie and Willie. Radar L.A. Through Sunday, June 26. 213-237-2800. http://www.redcat.org/radar-la/poor-dog-group