|Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson in a scene from “This Is Our Youth” by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anna D. Shapiro at the Cort theatre. photo by Brigitte Lacombe|
It is the early 1980s, and three Jewish young adults meet in an Upper West Side apartment.
They are the children of relatively affluent left-leaning parents, “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” as one of the three describes them, but of course that has not protected them from the vicissitudes of life.
In “This Is Our Youth,” playwright Kenneth Lonergan captures with humor and pathos that particular stage of our lives when our psychic pain has not yet calcified into bitterness but has begun to set into its final form. Lonergan’s sensitive ear for the way young people express themselves makes the play both bitingly funny and deeply insightful into the myriad ways we disappoint ourselves and others.
The Broadway production of “This Is Our Youth” now playing at the Cort Theatre was developed at Steppenwolf in Chicago and stars Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the production emphasizes the humor, and – at least through Cera’s performance – the genuine compassion Lonergan brings to his characters. After the 1996 off-Broadway premiere of “This Is Our Youth,” starring a young Mark Ruffalo, Lonergan went on to write other plays and the film scripts for “You Can Count on Me” and “Analyze This,” as well as “Margaret,” hailed by many as his masterwork.
At lights-up, we meet Dennis, zoned out in front of a large TV. He’s soon joined by Warren Straub, a close friend who is as self-effacing as Dennis is bellicose. A college dropout, Warren arrives with a substantial sack of money he has stolen from his father, as well as a load of beloved toys, which is worth a lot, he insists. His father has kicked him out, he tells Dennis, and he needs a place to crash. After some resistance and a torrent of insults, Dennis agrees, and their conversation turns to Jessica, a girl Warren likes and hopes to sleep with, and whether Dennis, a small-time dealer, can arrange a drug sale with another acquaintance, which will result in a profit and enable Warren to return his father’s money. Warren’s father is a lingerie manufacturer with a lot of shady associates, who Dennis is convinced will come and kill them if the money is not returned. Dennis may talk big, but he’s no fool. He’s just a rich Jewish kid who likes to pretend he’s a gangster.
While “This Is Our Youth” has a plot, that is not what makes it such good theater. It’s really all about the language, and the opportunities for breakout performances by young actors. Michael Cera is the standout in this production. He imbues Warren with an observant vulnerability that is just beneath his sad-sack surface. Although he is angry at his father’s constant criticism, he understands that neither of them ever will get over Warren’s sister’s murder by an abusive boyfriend. That unforeseen blow has knocked them both to the ground; Warren may be able to get up but his parents won’t. Kieran Culkin’s character, Dennis, is the son of a famous artist and a furiously do-gooding mother; Dennis sees through their public fame to the broken people within but cannot find it in himself to forgive them their failures. The third character, Jessica, receives the weakest performance from the very young Tavi Gevinson. A fashion blogger from the time she was in her early teens,, Gevinson shares Jessica’s interest in style, but she does not seem as comfortable on stage as the others. Still, her speech in the second act after she and Warren have spent the night at the Plaza is a marvel of adolescent-girl strategizing and rationalizing.
The Upper West Side has changed since the ’80s. It is both more Jewish and less liberal. The Reagan-era anthem of inefficient government and triumphalist capitalism has become the country’s default setting and only occasionally inspires more than resigned contempt. But there are just as many, if not many more, disillusioned and lost young people, searching for something to hold on to.
It is a surprise to realize that Warren, Dennis, and Jessica technically are baby boomers, having been born before 1964. They could as easily be Gen-Xers or Millennials or whatever we call 20-years-olds today. The angst is the same.