"This Is Our Youth", Kenneth Lonergan's 1998 play about disaffected rich kids on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is currently at Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs until October 18. The cast of three Marcello Cabezas, Marya Delver and Fabrizio Filippo is directed by Cheers alumnus Woody Harrelson. (The celebrity factor has had a huge impact on the show's media profile, aided in large part by Harrelson's non-stop promotional activities during this year's Toronto International Film Festival.)
Lonergan is known for his film writing, especially his Oscar-nominated "You Can Count On Me" and perhaps even more for "Gangs of New York". Between these two, in fact, there is a chasm that eludes easy labeling. Lonergan is best when he is permitted time with his characters without plotting events in their lives. As in these recent films, the writer penetrates the surface of people's lives when he is concerned more with their idiosyncrasies than with the pivotal events that threaten to change them. That may explain the quiet success of "You Can Count On Me" and how it moved beyond its cult status so quickly. In the two principal characters, played by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, Lonergan established the moment of loneliness without ever speaking about such things. He was content to show us how people move on with their daily lives, or don't, and he was utterly determined to resist self-conscious monologues of explanation. The screenplay, like his best writing in other stage and film scripts, observes and doesn't stoop to commentary.
"This Is Our Youth" rests uncomfortably between these two styles and the current production fails to provide its own point of view. Can three selfish post-adolescent kids hold our interest and earn our sympathy when they have so little regard for each other? And can a play that turns on an intrusive second act offstage death overcome its own rude mechanics? In stronger directorial hands these might be necessary elements for bringing the playwright's voice to the proceedings, but we are left with staging that is so haphazard and readings that stray from any discernible focus so often that the play grows tedious long before its quiet conclusion.
Basically, the play is set in a run down Upper West Side apartment. The design, by gifted designer Michael Gianfrancesco, doesn't evoke any Manhattan apartment that I've ever seen or heard of. A huge space with an enormous skylight and enough floor space for a soccer game is bewildering. More bewildering are some of the accessories that hang about. Sure, a punching bag and a ceiling swing might be part of the décor, but they are so arbitrarily placed and so little used that they become distracting rather than helpful props that delineate character or behaviour. The furnishings play as though someone had a neat idea one day in rehearsal and the props people complied by incorporating the requests.
More telling than the dressing, the actors are somewhat isolated in their various playing styles. Cabezas is the only one who has the ear and the rhythm for Lonergan's language and for the flavour of the city. Filippo, by contrast, plays everything with such vehemence and unnecessary volume that we stop listening to his rants early on. In the process, too, he misses most of Lonergan's wonderfully dry humour. Delver, playing the thankless female role, has been poorly and unfairly cast. She looks and sounds and behaves as though she had just arrived from the mid-west. Nothing about her appearance, speech or attitude suggests an Upper West Side girl named Jessica Goldman. And the costumes selected for her only make her situation worse because no self-respecting Upper West Side girl who spends her time at F.I.T. would be caught dead in public wearing these clothes. It just wouldn't happen.
When I first read the play I was taken by Lonergan's ability to create characters whose lives, however unappealing and unsympathetic, got beyond the mundane dialogue that they exchanged. On the page, the anguish of being alone and frantic for human contact is both compelling and disturbing. The first act is superior to the second in this regard. But this production reveals the trap of playing the situation of desperate lives with nothing but dogged desperation. If the play is to work, it needs to draw us into its world rather than batter us about the ears. And if this production had taken some time to delineate characters rather than presenting them in broad strokes coloured with angst and more angst, we might have taken the time to listen and absorb their sadly dislocated stories.
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