When I went into the Cort Theatre last night, I though for a moment I was going to a college production -- not because of the quality of what was onstage but because of the young audience, smartphones in hand, climbing over seats to get to their seats in the middle of a row. These twenty-somethings were far better dressed than the usual frumpy Broadway audience (whatever happened to dressing for the theatre?? Theatergoing should be a special occasion.), and far more excited to be there. The bars did booming business. What many of the young people in the audience were seeing was a play about them circa 1982 -- affluent, unmoored young New Yorkers.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote THIS IS OUR YOUTH in the mid-1990s, but he was looking back at wealthy New York Jewish slackers in the early 1980s. The two young men at the heart of this play are losers. Fast-talking Dennis (Kieran Culkin) has his own apartment because his parents are wiling to pay rent to get him out of their unhappy home. Dennis is all bluster and bravado. He has visions of himself as a terrific entrepreneur. Enter Dennis's best (only?) friend Warren (Michael Cera), who has just left home with fifteen thousand dollars (probably $100K in 2014), of his father's ill-gained money (Dad is some kind of fixer with links to organized crime). Five minutes into his visit to Dennis's apartment, Warren has accidentally destroyed a bookshelf that holds, among other things, a sculpture by Dennis's girlfriend, a fragile remnant of a tenuous relationship. Warren, a college dropout, seems totally lost and seems to spread destruction wherever he goes. His relationship with Dennis, his only friend, verges on the abusive. Dennis is constantly reinforcing Warren's low self-esteem. Also in the picture is Jessica Goldman (Tavi Gevinson), with whom Warren strikes up a one-night romance. Jessica is as lost as the two young men. By the end, all these relationships have dissolved.
Not much happens in THIS IS OUR YOUTH, but there's lots of brilliantly written talk. These characters are highly articulate, but what they articulate is confusion. The language at its best is hilariously funny, but always with a sad aftertaste. Lonergan is a master at dialogue that delineates individual characters. These are three distinct voices, though the characters have more in common than they would like to admit. For all the talk, they have great difficulty actually communicating. The last half hour peters out as suddenly the characters are explaining themselves too much in deadly O'Neill-like monologues, but the rest of the play sparkles. These are sad characters, but until the last half-hour Lonergan keeps us laughing.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH could not have a better production. In Anna D. Shapiro's superb staging, the characters are defined as much by how they express themselves physically as by their words. Warren is all random movement; Jessica approaches, then withdraws; Dennis is fits and spurts of pointless action. The cast couldn't be better. Warren never leaves the stage and Michael Cera proves to the one case of a film actor who actually knows how to act on stage -- knows how to project his voice and act with his body. Kieran Culkin, who played Warren twelve years ago in London, is a bit long in the tooth for Dennis, but he is the perfect foil for Cera's Warren. Dennis is a total jerk, but Culkin keeps the audience with him. Gevinson is a fashion blogger turned actress. I was pleasantly surprised at how good she was, a tribute, I am sure, to Shapiro's gifts as a director as well as Gevinson's talent and discipline. Her scenes with Warren are deeply touching.
I have sat through a number of student productions of THIS IS OUR YOUTH and wasn't sure I wanted to see this revival. I was glad I went. The play is both a period piece -- no computers, no smart phones, only one phone with a long cord that seems to have a life of its own -- and a timeless picture of lost adolescents. Anna D. Shapiro's production and the fine acting of this super-talented cast, make it a must see for the young and for those of us who remember the horrors of our adolescence.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH. Cort Theatre. September 12, 2014.