Sept 11, 2014
That kid you loved on “Arrested Development” is now that guy you’ll adore on Broadway.
Michael Cera makes a sublime debut on the theater world’s biggest stage alongside two other splendid actors, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, in Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,” a comedy-drama about smart young people with zero direction and less than zero judgement, that opened Thursday night at the Cort Theatre.
Expanding on the emotional scope of George Michael Bluth, the endearingly deadpan teenager he played for four seasons on the Fox and Netflix sitcom, Cera here embodies to captivating effect Warren Straub, who in Lonergan’s exquisite character-driven caper arrives at the Upper West Side apartment of his buddy, Culkin’s Dennis Ziegler, with a bag of $15,000 stolen from his dad. It is less, though, a financial crime than one of passion. For Warren, like the others on this alternately sad and hilarious evening, is a bundle of furious, mixed-up, late-adolescent impulses, fueled by a toxic mixture of too much brain power, insecurity and entitlement.
I first saw “This Is Our Youth” 18 years ago in an excellent production by off-Broadway’s New Group that introduced audiences to a meritorious unknown playing Warren by the name of Mark Ruffalo. Cera is a different kind of Warren — gawkier, more vulnerable and perhaps with his devastating timing, even funnier — in a tale that exposes the bad ideas hatched by kids with more energy than they know what to do with. It is to Cera’s credit, too, that an inkling of Warren’s salvageability is also at all times apparent. The actor manages to develop and sustain the illusion of a lad doing the wrong things for ever clearer reasons.
Under Anna D. Shapiro’s superb direction — maybe the best work of her increasingly impressive Broadway career — Cera and his co-stars mine the material for every desired laugh, every interlude of pathos. Culkin’s Dennis, a repository of self-regarding bravado whose out-of-control drug-dealing has prompted his rich parents to banish him to an apartment of his own, is no less remarkable: The bullying bile he aims at Cera’s cowed Warren is spewed with magnum comic impact. And Gevinson, as self-conscious Jessica Goldman, a girl so contrary she manages to turn Warren’s admiration for her into something bitter, makes the acting triumph here a triumvirate. What she and Cera do with a twisting scene, built around Warren’s gift to her of a sentimental item, is itself a little treasure.
As the play takes place in 1982, and entirely in Dennis’s apartment, Todd Rosenthal has devised a terrific New York set for the period, complete with Richard Pryor posters on the smudgy walls, and the towering back side of a dingy brick apartment house looming just beyond. But this particular world is conjured with even more verve by the three manic quasi-adults who all but bounce off Rosenthal’s walls, as they reveal to us how much bad use youthful exertion can be put to.