This is Our Youth, a play by Kenneth Lonergan about three wayward young adults in the big city during Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, had its Broadway debut this month. And while the Great White Way production towers over its triumvirate of performers with Todd Rosenthal’s impressive onstage recreation of Upper West Side tenement buildings from an era where everything was just a little bit dirtier, it still never once threatens to dwarf its intimate material. Indeed, in this one-room setting of a studio apartment piled under urban sprawl, the characters feel especially trapped in their adolescent angst of being all grown up with no place yet to go.
In that sense, This is Our Youth has never been timelier.
With her revival of the original Off-Broadway 1996 production, director Anna D. Shapiro’s larger canvas still feels uncomfortably cozy at the Cort Theatre where the pot fumes threaten to choke the audience along with the indecision of the center stage ne’er-do-wells, who are reluctantly living off their parents’ money. Despite the ‘80s setting, as well as protagonist Warren Straub’s nostalgia for relics of the Boomer generation, the play’s immersive universality springs to life in a new context 20 years later. If the setting were moved to present day Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Lonergan’s pen wouldn’t have to change another thing. Hell, this production could leave the Frank Zappa and Richard Pryor posters on the walls, as well as the vinyl records and cord-tangled phones as the central decorations of Dennis Ziegler’s humble abode. It would only add to the characters’ credit as being the supreme hipsters.
The cultural truism of the more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in those precarious days when all young people must flee the nest—is intentionally heightened by the very casting of Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin as the leads Warren and Dennis. Having already played roomies and strained best friends in the millennial touchstone Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, they partially reprise the same dynamics of that hipster power trip—except now they have no power, even if they are tripping over themselves and their drugs while in search of a clue for what kind of people they’re growing up to be.
Warren and Dennis have the kind of perfunctory friendship that hopefully both parties look back at with shame. Nineteen-year-old children of extreme New York privilege and wealth, their sole commonality is a middling acceptance of Warren’s subjugation. Played by Cera as anxiety personified, Warren rarely appears comfortable, save in his silence during Dennis’ needling, and in the burgeoning sad sack knowledge of his own obliviousness. That doesn’t stop him from showing up at Dennis’ door after he steals $15,000 from his father’s bedroom. Dad’s been a jerk ever since his sister died, anyway.
The fateful evening where they have stolen money to burn eventually crosses paths with 18-year-old Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), a barely (but noticeably) younger presence who still lives with her mother and is actually going to school; she both craves and is petrified by the companionship of boys, particularly Warren whose sweet idea of an ice breaker is to lunge at her and exclaim, “Now, you’re mine!” All three despair at the prospect of growing up and truly moving out, but in the spontaneous heat of each other’s orbit, they’ll at least make a night of it, the morning be damned.
This is Our Youth more than glides through its painfully funny two acts of manic charm. It stammers, trips, and grooves with the kind of frantic enthusiasm not found in most modern musicals. All three actors maneuver with a sort of rhythmic choreography during their repeated confrontations and reconciliations, which gesticulate Lonergan’s singularly abrasive and uproarious prose. Not quite natural, the dialogue remains dizzyingly authentic. “All you’ll remember of your youth is a gray haze and my jokes,” Dennis cracks during one of his many takedowns at Warren’s expense.
As Warren, Cera uses his inherent awkwardness to his advantage, and makes great asset of being the millennials’ apparent answer to Dorian Gray. Playing another teen who has not yet lived, but is already is world weary, Cera brings an arch sincerity and apprehension to a character who is so angry that he has forgotten how to rage. This is Cera’s third production in the play, and his comfort with this eternally uncomfortable material makes for riveting agony on stage. Culkin, meanwhile, threatens to steal the show with the constant alpha male showmanship of Dennis.
Like Warren, it is unveiled in the second act that Dennis is a product of neglectful parents (though for different reasons) that, by his own admission, pay for his apartment so they don’t have to see him. A drug dealer by hobby and a short-tempered raconteur by profession, Dennis will always have the last word in scenes that often end in bitter laughter that any viewer of Igby Goes Down might be familiar with. Nevertheless, the bitterness is far more tangible than in most of Culkin’s film roles to date, particularly in This is Our Youth’s far less comical second act.
Gevinson is making her first major theatrical bow in the role of Jessica, adding to her already staggeringly impressive credits at only 18-years-old. Also a writer and editor-in-chief for the teenage girl website Rookie, as well as a contributor for Elle and The Chicago Tribune, Gevinson proves she also has a winsome stage presence and affability here. When Jessica is allowed to let go of her skittish nerves around boys, such as when she initiates an awkwardly transcendent dance with Warren, Gevinson is wooing audience members as much as Cera. However, there is a raw uneasiness to her first waltz across the boards that is not simply acting. Projecting to the balcony is undoubtedly disquieting, but her expansive compensation robs the performance of her inherent charisma that will likely grace big stages with greater satisfaction in future years.
All three actors’ turns come together, however, for a massively successful overture across the stage. This is Our Youth finds delight in the existential confusion that every generation faces. Whether it is in the 1982 setting or the 2014 Broadway context, Lonergan’s play seems bulletproof to age or dating. In that sense, the easy answer to Warren, Dennis, and Jessica’s confused plight is that they will never have to grow up, because this play will be an event for every age that walks into the theater.