Although it’s gone on to enjoy a substantial afterlife, it actually took a while for This is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan’s slacker comedic drama, to catch on in New York. It was first staged in 1993 as a one-act called Betrayal by Everyone. In 1996, the New Group premiered the full play with Mark Ruffalo, Missy Yager and Josh Hamilton under Mark Brokaw’s direction for just 22 performances. Two years later, Second Stage, with the assistance of commercial producers Barry and Fran Weissler, brought it back with the same cast for a 240-performance run. (Twenty years back, Off-Broadway still had some commercial potential for an edgy drama.)
In addition to Ruffalo, an unusually large number of current film stars have appeared in various productions over the years including Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen, Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Colin Hanks and Freddie Prinze Jr. So it seems fitting that the play’s first Broadway production (one of quite a few shows to be produced by Scott Rudin this season) should have a starry cast including Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Superbad), Kieran Culkin (Scott Pilgrim v. The World) and 18-year-old prodigy Tavi Gevinson, who started a fashion blog at 12 years old and has since become a media icon through Rookie Magazine.
It’s nice to report that the play, which explores New York teens with a Chekhovian sense of stasis and humor, holds up very well. Lonergan, while exposing his characters’ insecurities, still has sympathy and affection for them. Although set in 1982, it has a timeless appeal, and the economic simplicity of this three-actor, single-set play assures that it will continue to be revived far into the future.
The subjects are New York-bred, affluent, assumedly Jewish youths who grab breakfast from Zabar’s. Their parents were probably idealistic 60s flower children who have since lost their idealism, joined the corporate ladder and voted for Reagan.
As the play begins, Dennis Ziegler is in the midst of dealing with his on-and-off girlfriend and trying to make a name for himself selling hard drugs. While the scenic design was not intended to go beyond Dennis’ ramshackle studio apartment, for the purposes of this production it has been significantly expanded to meticulously depict the neighboring buildings and fire escapes. Amazingly, this does not affect the production’s intimacy. It’s really just something to gawk at during intermission.
Dennis’ routine is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his socially awkward friend Warren Straub, who just had a fight with his father and, on a whim, stole a huge wad of cash from home. Warren has no clue what he’s going to do next. Dennis suggests they use the money to finance a drug sale and make a tidy profit. Their activity is interrupted by another arrival. This time it’s Jessica Goldman, a friend of Dennis’ girlfriend, who Warren just happens to have a crush on.
Virtually none of the play has all three characters onstage at once. First, we observe the dynamics between the cocky, condescending Dennis and the shook-up, meek Warren. Then act one turns into an awkward impromptu date between Warren and the smart, pretty and always questioning Jessica. Once Warren and Jessica finally ease into making out, he suggests that they get a room at the Plaza. Jessica, perhaps taken aback by Warren’s romanticism, consents.
Act two deals with the consequences of the actions from act one. Dennis has turned shell-shocked after learning that one of his drug-selling colleagues overdosed, bringing in a sobering dose of reality. Warren, who was originally walking on air, has his bubble burst by Jessica, who does not share his enthusiasm, and Dennis, who bargains away Dennis’ valuables too carelessly. Warren also makes a mess of the cocaine – quite literally and hilariously. By the end, nothing has been resolved. Warren may have boosted his self-esteem, but he doesn’t really know what to do or where to go next. He’ll probably go home and make nice with his dad.
The Steppenwolf-bred Anna D. Shapiro, whose Broadway successes include August: Osage County and Of Mice and Men, is an ideal director for the play, bringing out performances with a raw, restless intensity and authentic vulnerability. In fact, the production played Steppenwolf before Broadway, which probably explains its Chicago-style vibe. With a lesser director, the play might have felt like a dated sitcom.
There’s no escaping the fact that Cera is giving a performance that closely mirrors his warm, nervous nice guy persona seen in so much of his screen work. Even so, it suits the character of Warren, and he brings in plenty of laughs and physicality. The 18-year-old Gevinson, who has terrific rapport with Cera, vigorously conveys Jessica’s precocious nature and unpredictability. Culkin displays greater range and stage presence as Dennis, even if he is noticeably older than his co-stars, and that throws their shared dynamic a bit out of balance.
One can’t help but wonder if Cera’s young fans will be willing to shell out $100-plus to see him on Broadway when every episode of Arrested Development can be easily streamed on Netflix. If possible, this production really ought to be filmed and broadcast in movie theaters as part of the NT Live series, which is now starting to incorporate Broadway into its annual lineup. After all, the play has all the laughs of a Judd Apatow film comedy, plus a sobering dose of reality at the end.