THIS IS OUR YOUTH

This is Our  Youth

Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

Sex, Drugs, and ’80s Teenage Angst

Lead Cast: Michael Cera (Warren Straub), Kieran Culkin (Dennis Ziegler), Tavi Gevinson (Jessica Goldman).

Writer:           Kenneth Lonergan

Director:        Anna D. Shapiro

Background:  Although Kenneth Lonergan’s play was first produced in 1996, this Steppenwolf production marks its Broadway debut. The original Off Broadway production, by The New Group, starred Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo, and Missy Yager.

The Plot: The action occurs in 1982 over 48 hours in Dennis Ziegler’s (Culkin) apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The characters are three “poor rich kid” New Yorkers struggling to find their way in the world and into adulthood. The catalyst for the action is the arrival of the socially inept Warren Straub (Cera), who has just been kicked out by his rich, abusive father, from whom, as a parting gesture, Warren has stolen $15,000 in cash. There are indications that his father may be involved with gangsters and that the cash may have been illegally obtained. Warren seeks refuge at the apartment of his frenemy Dennis, a cocky and somewhat bullying wheeler-dealer. Dennis sees Warren’s predicament as an opportunity. He convinces Dennis to invest the money in a big drug deal. (No surprise: that idea doesn’t turn out well). He also volunteers to help sell Warren’s valuable vintage toy and memorabilia collection. The third character is Jessica, an attractive young fashion student who is the object of Warren’s affections.

Although the play is billed as a comedy, there’s plenty of tragedy surrounding the characters. Warren and his father are dealing with the death of his sister, who was murdered by her boyfriend some years earlier. And late in the play, Dennis has an existential meltdown when a drug dealing friend dies of an overdose.

What’s Really Going On: The road from adolescence to adulthood is rarely smooth. While the three characters in This is Our Youth are on the brink of adulthood, they have a way to go: Dennis has his own apartment, but daddy pays his rent. Warren has been living (uneasily) with his father, and Jessica still lives with her mother. It’s also important to note that the play takes place during the age of Reaganomics. The three young people are conflicted about their place in society. They have grown up enjoying the fruits of privilege and they continue to depend on their parents’ largess, yet they (especially the two young men) have contempt for the older generation and its values.

The Performances: These actors have worked together on Lonergan’s play for a long time, and it shows in their easy, honest rapport. They all appeared in the recent Steppenwolf production in Chicago. All three turn in credible performances, but I was especially struck by what a good actor Kieran Culkin is. He remains offstage throughout much of Act 2, and his absence created a vacuum. I missed his amazing, visceral energy. Cera seems typecast as a bumbling, socially awkward loser. He does a fine job portraying Warren’s unease, but we never forget we’re watching the Michael Cera we’ve seen in Juno or Superbad. Gevinson, whose character is described in the script as “a cheerful but nervous girl,” has perhaps the least to work with. However, as the actor who is nearest in age to the character she plays (she is 18; Culkin is 31; Cera is 26), Gevinson does bring a fresh verisimilitude to the role. She seem somewhat flat and unemotional at times, but it’s in keeping with the confused young women she plays.

Trivia: This is Our Youth is an expanded version of Lonergan’s 1993 one-act play, Betrayal by Everyone. The characters and events may be based on Lonergan’s experiences as a student at the progressive Walden School in Manhattan.

Cera and Culkin appeared together in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Cera became interested in acting after viewing Ghostbusters repeatedly when sick with chicken pox at age three. He memorized all the dialogue. (According to Wikipedia).

Tavi Gevinson is editor-in-chief and founder of Rookie, a website for teenage girls.

Should You Go? This play is not a must-see. However, if you’re a fan of any of the three young actors, it’s worth a go—especially for Culkin’s fine performance. But no need to pay full price.

Ticket Info:   Discounted tickets are available at Playbill.com and at the Times Square TKTS ticket booth. As of this writing, the play’s run will end January 4, 2015.

Show Website

 

 

 

 

 

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL

Lady Day

Circle in the Square (50th St. between Broadway/8th Ave.)

Lead Cast: Audra McDonald (Billie Holiday), Shelton Becton (Jimmy Powers, her pianist)

Written By: Lanie Robertson; Directed By: Lonny Price

Background: According to the Playbill, the play is based on an actual performance by Billie Holiday in a dive bar in Philadelphia witnessed by a boyfriend of the playwright: “She stumbled in obviously ‘quite high,’ carrying her little Chihuahua Pepi, whom she introduced to her audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and a piano player performed 10 or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, she staggered out.”

The Plot:  The place is Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a small bar in South Philadelphia. The time is March, 1959, around midnight. Jazz great Billie Holiday—drinking throughout her performance—becomes progressively more inebriated and sloppy as her set goes on. Four months later, she would be dead of cirrhosis and heart failure, at the age of 44.

In a Nutshell: Just as the play depicts Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her brilliant performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she has been playing to sold-out audiences night after night.

The Performance: For fans of Ms. McDonald, Ms. Holiday, or both, the performance is a complex, multi-layered experience. On the one hand, we see Ms. McDonald, ravishing in a white gown trimmed with sequins. On other, we simultaneously see Ms. Holiday, a tragic figure who is desperately trying to keep it together while performing. Ms. McDonald does an uncanny impression of Billie Holiday’s unique vocal style. If you close your eyes, you truly can imagine yourself back in 1959, as one of those 7 audience members at Emerson’s, where even near the end of her life, Holiday’s brilliance shines through her obvious pain. But when you open your eyes, you can’t stop thinking that you’re watching Audra McDonald, one of the most talented and accomplished Broadway stars of her generation. Are you watching Audra or Billie? They’re both up there on the stage, simultaneously.

While McDonald’s performance is extraordinary throughout the 95-minute show, the musical highlight is her achingly beautiful rendition of Billie’s dark song “Strange Fruit,” a poem set to music about the lynching of a black man in the South:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

It is painful to witness the decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s, but it is at the same time uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late Lady Day.

A Bit More About Billie: Billie Holiday’s life was tough and tragic from the start. Born in 1915 to a young, unwed mother, she was raped as a young child, worked as a prostitute, abused drugs and alcohol, had relationships with abusive men, and served prison time. In fact, as she lay dying in New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, her room was under police guard because of an arrest for drug possession. She did experience popular success: she played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1948 and her recording of “God Bless the Child” (which she wrote) sold over a million records. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published in 1956, along with an album of the same name. Diana Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying Billie in the 1972 film version. Billie got her nickname, “Lady Day,” from her friend, saxophonist Lester Young.

Should You Go? Yes! There’s no way you won’t enjoy this production, I promise. What’s not to like? Broadway great Audra McDonald, 15 classic songs accompanied by a flawless trio of musicians, and a tribute to a jazz legend, all packed into an intermissionless 95 minutes. But don’t delay: although the show has been extended several times, like Billie Holiday’s career, it won’t last forever. The show is currently extended through October 5.

Trivia: As previously mentioned, Audra McDonald has won a record-breaking 6 Tony Awards (3 of them by age 28): Lady DayCarouselMaster ClassRagtimeA Raisin in the SunThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The Julliard-trained soprano is also a two-time Grammy Award-winner and played “Mother Abbess” in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! She is married to actor Will Swenson, Broadway star of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, the recent revival of Les Miserables, and the upcoming Bull Durham.

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available at Playbill.com and frequently at the Times Square TKTS booth. I printed out the Playbill.com offer and took it to the box office to purchase very good seats at $85. If money is no object, you can purchase Circle Club seats ($200), tables close to the stage where you can sip cocktails (included). Ms. McDonald occasionally walks among the tables and interacts with those lucky audience members. (Note: children under 12 are not permitted at Circle Club tables).

Show Website