New York City Theater
"This Is Our Youth"
All one can say to the title, “This Is Our Youth,” is “I hope not but maybe so.” This vivid production of Kenneth Lonergan’s smart, furious, 1998 comedy-drama is a reminder of Charles Dickens’ famous paradoxical opener to “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
Lonergan’s feckless, wealthy, restless, spoiled, intelligent, unmoored, Jewish Upper West Side 20-somethings with successful, remote parents may or may not find their ways out of the dark forest of Reagan‘s 1962 America. Meanwhile, they’ll take dead-end jobs, bitch about their folks, smoke pot, try to bury their past while also trying to get laid and attempt to put negativity out of their minds by tamping down every future promise their lives may hold.
To the apartment of narcissistic, magnetic Dennis Ziegler comes insecure, diffident Warren Straub who needs a place to hang out, a retreat from the violent father who threw him out of the house. In revenge, Warren has lifted $15,000 from his father’s suitcase (”the proceeds from my unhappy childhood”). How to both spend some of the loot and parlay it into a bigger pile occupies what plot there is. Amidst the dope peddling, the rock music and a friend’s unexpected death is a boatload of gallows humor that Lonergan can instantly transform into bitterness.
The third party, attractive, watchful, incisive Jessica Goldman is the object of Warren’s attention. Lonergan’s empathy extends to all three characters, to their perception, to their knowing they’d like to be somewhere than nowhere.
Although seemingly formless, the evening is absorbing, thanks as much to the idiosyncratic acting and directing as the spot-on New York street talk. (When Warren tells Dennis about his night at the Plaza with Jessica, the reply is “You should have gone to the Pierre . . . a much, much better hotel.”)
As Dennis, Kieran Culkin is all nerve-ends, a scheming know-it-all with enough energy to light the impassive apartment house that looms above his flat. Michael Cera starts as an awkward, insecure kid with the typical easterner’s wish to go to the supposedly purer west. By the end, he’s acquired if not maturity then an ability to stand up for himself. Culkin and Cera are both wonderful, as is Tavi Gevinson as the independent Jessica.
Director Anna D. Shapiro’s potent staging is particularly effective spatially, suggesting that the past impinges on the present and cannot be distanced. As for the characters’ future, will it, as Jessica predicts, invalidate “whoever you are right now”? We’ll never know. Meanwhile, we have this arresting production to ponder.
--David A. Rosenberg
September 19, 2014