The audacious title of this play – “This Is Our Youth” – subtly shouts at you. An apt oxymoron in which to describe the mood, action and ultimately the story of this telling play. Listen up… pay attention…. Hear me! How like the young and the restless….attention must be paid here and now … but with tender care.
A tall order in light of the fact that the young principals in “This Is Our Youth” are a drug dealer i.e. “Dennis” ( Kieran Culkin in a bold, fiery performance – he’s the confident shouter) and “Warren” (appealingly portrayed by twitchy Michael Cera – he’s the subtle confused one) both make a semi- living in an illegal manner. The story opens in 1982 with Warren’s theft of substantial monies from his father, jumpily and hesitantly arriving at Dennis’s apartment. An irritable Dennis, with rapid fire delivery – he’s like James Cagney with a machine guy – consistently berates the sad lostWarren. “Loser” is one of his kinder cuts.
Wow! Where do we go from here? This is spoiled youth at its most comically but sadly mixed up , young adults on the cusp whose parents have failed them, who have experienced major tragedy, yet have been raised in affluent professional households in the middle of NYC’s elite neighborhoods while attending costly private schools. What went wrong here? Do they find themselves and ultimately walk the line by the close of the play? Perhaps there’s another way to go here? I am not even certain of the questions to ask, let alone the answers.
This comic drama (another oxymoron, this play has its share of ambiguity) is currently generating plenty of positive buzz, and is expected to be a major hit this season on Broadway, for several reasons. Michael Cera as one of the principal players is a hot young actor and making an auspicious Broadway debut, coupled with the fact that when this play debuted some 16 years ago, it featured Mark Ruffalo who was an unknown actor at that point. Its author, Kenneth Lonergan, is known for his work on the screenplay for the gritty Scorcese film “Gangs of New York” and as an award winning screenwriter for Sundance Festival’s Drama winner “You Can Count on Me,” a really interesting film starring Laura Linney. He is primed for a Broadway success. And another young actress, the diverse Tavi Gevinson has been interviewed all over the tube recently; she is poised and touted for stardom. And indeed she gives an amazingly confident, sympathetic, smart performance. Bravo to all the players, but extra kudos for brave Tavi, the youngest and least experienced in this acute triangle. She’s the most trustworthy character here, and tells it as it is … I paraphrase….”you won’t be a pot smoking burn out forever, in 10 years you’ll be someone else – a plastic surgeon – you’ll be completely different!” One can only hope.
And so of course the audience members are sucked in by three such compelling individuals (and two characters whom we never meet yet push the plot forward) while trying to keep up with such a quick paced piece, artfully delivered by this talented triangle of a cast. Given the incisive, smart-ass dialogue carefully crafted by Lonergan it’s a no brainer to become absorbed in a rather slim plot while the characters’ stories and personalities unfold. His sharp dialogue is yet another well honed character in this crafty piece and adopts a life of its own. So keep in mind that although not a lot happens on stage, much is said and implied. Character is action; scrutinize their movements and decisions closely. Again, pay attention!
I gotta tell you. I consistently thought while intently watching this show that this certainly wasn’t MY YOUTH… thank goodness. I came of age in the ‘80s, the time frame of this play, the age of capitalism and Reganomics. The majority of 1980s youth were too absorbed in trying to pay the rent, we did not come from affluent homes, we were new to the professional work force, and strong with ambition. Our idea of success was purely financial, there was no other yardstick. We didn’t have the time, nor the financial freedom which allowed us to ask who we were – we were simply trying to get from one place to the other on our own brains and initiative. As clever and crafty as is this play, I personally found the characters rather distasteful – spoiled Upper West Side kids were individuals I neither emulated nor admired. Just couldn’t empathize although I did eventually reach a sympathetic understanding of Dennis and Warren.
Are there larger issues at play in “This Is Our Youth?” Of course, but again, we did not have the luxury way back when of asking what’s wrong with our lives. Do I care about these characters? Do I want these flawed young people to succeed, and climb out of their self imposed, self absorbed exile? Before they move on, the fictional Warren and Dennis must realize that perhaps the fault lies not in their stars but in themselves.
My sentiments on this show may very well now be generational.
Share your thoughts should you catch a performance, I am anxious to hear what others have to say!
By: Joanne Theodorou