By Kenneth Lonergan; Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 1.4.15
The Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street
by Ben Coleman on 10.9.14
Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in This Is Our Youth. Photo by Sara Krulwich.
BOTTOM LINE: A crackling revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s famous dramedy captures the 1980’s youth of New York with sharp direction, a stunning design, and a couple excellent performances to boot.
Walking into the Cort Theatre is like being hit with a wave of deja vu these days. The brick exterior of a New York City apartment building towers over the perfectly rendered abode of twenty-something Dennis Ziegler. For some it might recall Joe Mielziner’s famous Death of A Salesman design where the city looms above the Loman house - perhaps fitting since the frivolous and directionless Dennis and Warren of Kenneth Lonergan’s play could almost be a contemporized Biff and Happy (barring the success of their fathers). However for many (particularly those in our youth - or the fleeting days of it in my case) Todd Rosenthal’s set might look eerily like home. This is not to say that the design is unfaithful to the aesthetic of 1982-New York City, it’s just that the apartments occupied by today’s youth haven’t been updated since that time. The cabinets, the stove, the refrigerator, the bathroom, the claustrophobic lack of sunlight are all captured with an accuracy that is at once nostalgic and also of-the-moment. The same can be said for much of this revival.
This splendid Broadway transfer from Chicago’s ever-reliable Steppenwolf theatre company brings Kenneth Lonergan’s biting play about arrogant, coke-snorting, privileged youths living in the urban jungle to the Disneyfied Times Square district. After being kicked out of his father’s home, Warren Straub (Michael Cera) comes buzzing at the door of his friend Dennis Ziegler’s (Kieran Culkin) Upper West Side apartment - conveniently purchased by the Ziegler parents to give their son some “independence.” Temporarily homeless, Warren comes lugging a suitcase of childhood memorabilia and a stolen bag of $15,000 as a final “fuck you” to his callous father. Together, the two endeavor to snort, smoke, and sell an obscene amount of drugs, swig Dom Perignon, get laid, and make a tidy little profit in the end.
Together, the awkward and self-conscious Michael Cera and the over-confident and smug Kieran Culkin represent the dual natures of youth, in two remarkable performances. Cera, gangly and scarecrow-like, conveys the stunted adolescence within Warren, tripping over himself and stammering through shakily uttered sentences. Fans of Cera’s work will see the actor play to his strengths here, but although Cera is doing what he does best, it is gratifying to see the affable loser he frequently portrays on screen find more piercing depth on stage. Culkin, whose film work I am admittedly less familiar with, shines brightly in an agitating performance as the hotheaded and potheaded Dennis. When Dennis is confronted with a dose of reality at the end of the play, Culkin deftly shows a crack in his pompous facade - but just enough to illustrate that although bad things can happen, he still doubts they will ever come knocking on his door. As Jessica Goldman, the free-thinking female of the piece, Tavi Gevinson’s performance is regrettably sophomoric. Rife with peculiar and unnatural speech patterns, and a pained expression frozen on her face, it is disappointing to see the third member of this fine ensemble fall so incredibly short.
Overall, Anna D. Shapiro’s brutally nostalgic production is an excellent excuse to reminisce about one’s past, or to warily anticipate one’s future. Shapiro hits all the grace notes without overplaying them. Moments like placing a call from a landline start as a bit of very honest stage-business, then give way to comedy as the characters begin futzing over the tangled telephone cord - prompting the audience to gratefully cling to our iPhones and think about what a crazy world we used to live in.
Dennis, Warren, and Jessica would be in their early 50s today, and in a time where anachronisms are a form of cultural currency, it feels right to consider 1982 through the lens of 2014. Perhaps they would feel differently about their selfish actions, or the hard, unfeeling words that passed between them. But wherever their aimless wandering got them in life, the time has come to take a sobering look back.
(This Is Our Youth plays at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, through January 4, 2015. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 7PM, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM and 7PM. Tickets are $35 - $135 and can be purchased at www.telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)