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.