Contributor Marcus Scott reviews the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.
Playing at the Cort Theater, it has become apparent that Broadway finally has its first mumblecore chef-d’oeuvre with Kenneth Lonergan’s cult slacker play This Is Our Youth having crashed on the casting couch of the Great White Way. First produced off-Broadway by the New Group in 1996, the show featured a cast of then unknowns (Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo and Missy Yager)—introducing the world to one of the seminal works about the dazed and confused.
The 2014 Broadway revival of Lonergan’s saga of piquant disenchantment may fashion thesis statements of Generation X kids having a talent for misery, but if reporters of said age group were to probe Millennials today, they probably wouldn’t be flabbergasted by the parallel camaraderie. Stuck in an internment camp of lost hope and frequent instability, with the successes (and failures) of their parents looming above their heads, many Millenials feel like they’ve been reduced to office drones and worker bees. Imagine the similar cynicisms soaking the dialogue of Lonergan’s brand of post-high school existential turmoil, especially in a piece such as This Is Our Youth, which follows three privileged, pessimistic and pseudo-intellectual pretty young things free falling without a parachute in sight. The black magic of adulthood has cursed them and watching it play out on stage is spellbinding.
Set in 1982, the characters in the Reagan-era This Is Our Youth may come off like a few enchanted burnouts that all want to be adored, but as their worlds collide over the course of 12 hours, we come to understand the underbelly of their souls. From the outskirts, the full-blooded, semi-charmed lives of Dennis Ziegler (played by a maverick Kieran Culkin), a bike messenger who wastes away making profits off cannabis in his posh studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and his personal punching bag Warren Straub (played by an excellent Michael Cera), seem to be affluent malingerers. Dennis’s father is an influential painter and his mother is a humanitarian social worker, while Warren’s father is a businessman. Only Dennis’s mother is too self-obsessed to bother and his father is going through a few changes of his own, and Warren seems unwanted by his parents.
When his dad kicks him out of his apartment and threatens violence, it’s no wonder why Warren rings dope-dealing Dennis’s buzzer around midnight with $15,000 in cash that he stole from his dad along with a collection of record albums, vintage toys and a one-of-a-kind toaster. From this point, the night goes on a perpetual rollercoaster ride as the revolting youths party the weekend away. Though a bit of a swaggering raging bull, Dennis understandably goes into panic mode and freaks out since he fears Warren’s dad will have his head. Ideas of jet-setting off to France or using the money to start a new life in Seattle are tossed to and fro before the two ultimately decide to invite Dennis’s unseen girlfriend and her gal pal Jessica and spend a small fortune on premium drugs and alcohol. (Though at times you get a sense that the two guys could have a same-sex experience, albeit at the hands of a bad trip.)
When 18-year-old student Jessica Goldman (played by fashion blogger cum indie princess Tavi Gevinson), the bottle blonde attending fashion school alongside a bunch of Jewish American Princesses finally shows up, it’s bound to spiral out of control.
“It’s like my instinct is just broken,” she says. Sounds like a running theme when juxtaposed against Dennis and Warren’s actions like throwing a football around the apartment (and trashing the place) or the impending heartbreak that the rapid-fire, conversation-switching ingénue has in store. Jessica, a vague character who is fleshed out by Gevinson, who falls for boys too fast, knows a thing or two about that.
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro (August Osage: County) with set design by Todd Rosenthal, which gives off a cramped and claustrophobic vibe in juxtaposition to the high-rises looming in the backdrop, This Is Our Youth feels fresh: like the angst-ridden pre-college brain could have written it. Sure, those jaded by tall tales of entitled young adults with zero prototypes for how the real world works and the lives one should lead, may call Lonergan’s play “White People’s Problems 101” starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. And to many an extent, they’re right. But in this play, where friends and foes bite the dust in the blink of an eye, self-preservation flies off into the wild blue yonder.
This Is Our Youth
138 West 48th Street
Through January 4
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.