Considering how much I tend to dislike plays about aimless, wayward youth and/or casual drug culture—in part, of course, because find all that disaffecting, but also because the pointlessness of the lifestyles tend toward a pointlessness in the dramatization as well—it’s a testament to its solidity and perspective how much I like Kenneth Lonergan’s play This is Our Youth. Whether the title is ironically nostalgic or cynically cautionary—or both—I’m not sure, but if you don’t know the play, neither quite prepares you for its tone, or for the fact that, as sad as it is at its emotional core, it is also, most of the time, laugh-out-loud funny, because Lonergan allows himself a degree of historical perspective (it’s almost tacitly set in Reagan era 1982) and presents his three characters, even when they’re at their worst, with compassion and authenticity.
It takes place over 48 hours. Dennis Ziegler (Kieran Culkin), hot-tempered and in an apartment subsidized by parents who’d rather manage him at arms’ length than deal with him at home, is a low-level wheeler-dealer and drug pusher, with not much in the way of friends, only contacts…except for Warren Straub (Michael Cera), 19 and a congenital loser, or so Dennis characterizes him, even when he shows up to seek refuge from an abusive father, along with a stash of $15,000 he took from his father’s shady-business suitcase. Figuring into the mix later is Jessica Goldman (Tavi Gevinson), a girl Dennis has his own (offstage) girlfriend invite over to give Warren some self-esteem or something. That too plays out in surprising ways.
All the performances are terrific, variant studies in adolescent posturing, vulnerability and gracelessness, under the very smart direction of Anna D. Shapiro. And I guess what the performances underscore is something likewise very smart about the play; none of these characters is burnt out. However aimless or uncertain or restless they may be, each is on the brink of choice. As some of you may know, I’m headed toward production of a musical I wrote (with composer Alan Menken) based on Mordecai Richler’s seminal Canadian novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; and in the book (and the musical) Duddy receives a posthumous letter from his Uncle Benjy, part of which says: “You’re two people. The scheming little bastard I saw so easily and the fine, intelligent boy underneath that your grandfather, God bless him, saw. But you’re coming of age and you’ll have to choose. A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others.”
The sweetness of This is Our Youth comes, in spite of everything, from the portrait of kids for whom there’s still hope—albeit a hope they each have to find, without much outside help, on their own own—because they haven’t yet murdered their betterselves.
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