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Chicago by John Olson

This Is Our Youth
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Carrie


Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera
Kenneth Lonergan's play about aimless "me generation" children of affluent families in the 1980s was a successful star vehicle for a succession of young American movie stars in a 2002 production in London's West End. Jake Gyllenhaal, Freddie Prinze Jr., Casey Affleck and Kieran Culkin each played the insecure Warren Straub at different times, but it's hard to picture any of them as well suited to the role as Michael Cera, who'll make his Broadway debut when this production opens at the Cort Theater this fall. Warren is intensely unsure of himself: uncomfortable in his own stiff body which seems to move on a single axis rather than bending anywhere. Does Warren sound a little like Juno's Paulie Bleeker, Superbad's Evan, or Nick of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist? If you didn't know this play's history, you might swear Lonergan wrote the role for Cera, but the actor was only eight years old when This Is Our Youth first opened Off-Broadway in 1996, starring a young Mark Ruffalo as Warren.

Given the similarity of Cera's usual on screen persona to Warren, it's unlikely anyone will be surprised by his performance, but it's a good one nonetheless. Cera may be mostly typecast in his career so far, but the actor has a way of making us feel for his lovable losers. And Lonergan's Warren and Dennis (Kieran Culkin), two college dropouts from wealthy uptown Manhattan families, aren't easy to like. Nineteen-year-old Warren, who's just been kicked out of the apartment he'd been sharing with his abusive divorced father, helped himself to $15,000 in cash he found stashed in a suitcase in the dad's bedroom. With nowhere else to turn, he crashes at the parent-funded apartment of Dennis, his 22-year-old drug dealer buddy who constantly berates and belittles him.

As stiff and hesitant as Warren is, his buddy is the opposite. Culkin's Dennis is manic, except for the moments where he's glued to the TV set. Mostly, he's fidgeting, pacing, throwing things and exhibiting all sorts of nervous energy. It's an inventive, organic performance, perfectly fleshing out the manipulative petty drug dealer Lonergan has created. Culkin's stage chops from years of Off-Broadway work do him well here, though Cera's understated acting style also works in the intimate alley-style staging in Steppenwolf's upstairs theater. He and director Anna D. Shapiro may have some work to do making his performance big enough for the traditional proscenium space they'll be working in at the Cort, but for this space Cera's just fine.

Also taking the stage from the world of film and TV is Tavi Gevinson, who had an important role in the indie film Enough Said, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. As Jessica, the anxious girl whom Warren covets and connects with, Gevinson takes a while to warm up, but once she settles into character she gave a complex and touching performance. Her Jessica is pretty, but without the confidence you'd expect from such an attractive young woman of college age. It's never stated, but Jessica seems to have clinical anxiety and Gevinson makes it clear that it may be Warren's insecurity that leads her to trust him more than the other guys she's dated. In the final scene between Warren and Jessica, in which the future of their relationship is determined, Cera and Gevinson play the complex and shifting emotions of the situation so clearly that it all makes sense to the audience. She asks Warren to make a sacrifice to prove that his interest in her is sincere. It's a request she shouldn't have made and he shouldn't have agreed to and they both figure that out too late.

Lonergan is a master of understated dialogue and un-self-aware losers, whether the characters possess false bravado, weakness, or make game attempts at assertiveness. In This is Our Youth, as in his play Lobby Hero and the film You Can Count on Me, he brings us into the minds of people struggling to find themselves and trying to deal with the everyday demands of social interactions and relationships. His characters here are in an awkward stage of life somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, but unlike most of their peers, Dennis and Warren are in a stage of arrested development (if you'll forgive the reference to Cera's TV series). They try to speak like mature adults, using words and phrases they don't completely understand and use improperly. They have disdain for their parents, but they don't even entirely understand their parents' work—and they still, legally or illegally, depend on financial assistance from their families for their living expenses.

Lonergan's very funny but ultimately sad script requires nuanced acting to suggest what's really going on in the heads of these three young adults, whose life experience and to a certain degree, intellect, are so limited they can barely make sense of their own thoughts and feelings, let alone articulate them. Shapiro's view of what's going on is crystal clear, though, and she gets her cast to communicate it through organic and engaging performances. We should acknowledge that Cera and Culkin played their current roles in a short-run production of the play in Sydney, Australia, directed by Mark Brokaw two years ago, so together with Culkin's experience as Dennis in the London production, the two actors came to the project well-prepared. That said, Ms. Shapiro has put together a funny and true-feeling interpretation of this 1996 play that ought to be warmly received when it hits Broadway this fall.

This Is Our Youth will play will play Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through July 27, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.Steppenwolf.org, call 312-335-1650 or visit the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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