Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 11, 2014
This Is Our Youth A comedy by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Original music by Rostam Batmanglij. Cast: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson.
Todd Rosenthal's dazzling scenic design, which has likewise been captivatingly lit by Brian MacDevitt, may be the most immediately emblematic part of Anna D. Shapiro's razor-edged production, but it's far from its only notable feature. Just as arresting is Kenneth Lonergan's play itself, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1996 and is set in 1982, but feels stunningly, depressingly relevant to the young adults (and, for that matter, not-so-young adults) of today, and is enacted by Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera, and Tavi Gevinson, only highlighting the bitterly optimistic eternal loss at the work's core.
Not that any of the barely-twentysomethings are fully aware of the gravity they're fighting against — they're just living their lives the best ways they know how, without realizing that those ways are not especially good. The most obvious example of this is Dennis (Culkin), who lives alone on his parents' dime (he convinced them he'd stay out of their way if they fronted his rent), and makes his money selling drugs of various vintages to the neighborhood kids and juggling a social circle so as to always keep him one step ahead of a lengthy prison sentence. But he has a meal ticket, an income source, and a girlfriend, so what else does he need?
Warren (Cera) doesn't even have that much. He lives with his father after his parents split-up, but barely gets along with him; in fact, he arrives at Dennis's place one Saturday night bearing $15,000 he secretly stole from dad and a suitcase containing the precious toys and other mementos of his childhood he may be able to sell to finance some portion of his independence. Perpetually single and largely talent- and ambition-free, he harbors little more than an intense attraction for Dennis's girlfriend, Jessica (Gevinson), and will receive by the end of that night an opportunity to test her desires for him and maybe set himself on a more fruitful path.
What's inescapable, and what gives this revival its deepest dramatic heft, is that those today in their late teens and early 20s face no more security than these do. Our economy has spent years struggling to rebound, with demographic, technological, and social shifts stripping them of their ability to come into their own. Shapiro (wisely) never highlights this, and refuses to let her actors comment on this, however obliquely, beyond the lines of the script. But so complete is her rendition of these people's deceptive misery that it's the only conclusion there is to draw, and it's a heartbreaking one that reminds us all too well how we as a society make the same mistakes and give the same bad advice over and over again.
It's for that reason that the performers come across as well as they do. All three are making their Broadway debut, and by most objective standards fall short of the necessary vocal training and sense of size needed to translate such an intimate show (the three characters share the stage together for only a couple of minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour running time) to a full-size Broadway theater. But here that just adds to the atmosphere of being lost, and you believe even more that this trio is suffering precisely because they're scrambling to live a life they're not remotely prepared for.
The lanky Cera (Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), with the least supple delivery, has the toughest climb, but also the most natural likability; that amplifies the notion of Warren as an innocent trying to mature without the proper equipment, and adds something of a tragic undercurrent to the events he unwittingly brings about. Culkin, at once stockier and more nimble, strikes darker notes and projects a tougher exterior that echoes a faint internal regret for the choices Dennis has made, and if anything he seems most eaten up by the city he's trying to run. Jessica should be a vibrant alternative to the resigned Dennis, but Gevinson plays her as a more passive instrument of change, and giving the softest, and least effective, performance of the evening.
But overall, Shapiro's version of This Is Our Youth is a powerful and engrossing one, trapping you with Warren and Dennis in a sprawling landscape of infinite possibilities that it's quite obvious, because of forces within and outside their control, will never come to pass for them. Not that it will stop Dennis, Warren, Jessica, and their many unseen compatriots from trying to surmount the myriad obstacles in front of them, both now and in the years and decades to come. The final, haunting moments of the play underscore this further: They're locked inside a vicious cycle in which the consequences of their actions are always closer to destruction than exaltation.
For them, no staring at the sky will help them attain stars even if they reach for them. But everything about this play and production reminds us why their pointless attempts are vital—to them and to us.