Sept 12, 2014
An anthem for stewed youth, the Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth is set amid “last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism”. It concerns Denny (Kieran Culkin), a bike messenger, pot dealer, and mild sociopath; Warren (Michael Cera), his kicked-dog college dropout best friend; and Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), the jumpy fashion student Warren crushes on.
This 1996 drama was Lonergan’s breakout play. Though still hewing to drama school rules – small cast, single set, neat inciting incident – it has a mature, post-grad voice, sensitive and humane and jammed full of totally splendid crackerjack-with-a-toy-surprise dialogue. But there’s also an unwillingness to excuse or soften the characters. They say and do stupid, nasty things, because it’s who they are. You can only hope that they’ll learn to do better. They might not.
Reviews of the original production were enthusiastic, so it’s a puzzle why it’s taken so long for this play – or any of Lonergan’s – to reach Broadway. Friends Cera and Culkin more or less willed this revival into being with an assist from the director Anna D Shapiro, an ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where the production originated.
In past Broadway outings like August: Osage County and The Motherfucker with the Hat, Shapiro has made a specialty of having people tell each other uncomfortable truths, loudly. Her staging risks emotional overkill, but she encourages her actors to draw deep, which usually keeps them grounded.
In Youth, the scenes between Denny and Warren, who has arrived at Denny’s studio apartment with a sack of cash stolen from his father, “arguably the most dangerous lingerie manufacturer in the world”, are a treat as Culkin and Cera take such evident pleasure in playing the characters and playing with one another. Culkin’s performance is maybe more varied, but Cera’s is more engaged. You could argue that Cera always plays more or less the same sad, awkward, excitable guy, but you could also argue that he plays him really, really well.
Newcomer Gevinson, best known as a fashion-blogger and editor of the crazy-smart teen magazine Rookie, has flair and charm, but sometimes struggles in the role. You can sense she’s working to feel all of Jessica’s fragility and insecurity and fervor, but the effort tenses her body and voice. It’s not only the character’s nerves you’re seeing.
Despite this difficulty and a final scene that over-enunciates themes and conflicts, This Is Our Youth is rich and sad and wry in its cruel-to-be-kind portrayal of disillusioned adolescents struggling to take up the business and onus of grown-up life. How do you put away childish things, it asks, when you aren’t ready to pick up adult ones?