This is Our Youth treads familiar ground. It depicts that bewildering phase of adolescence when ‘kid’, ‘teen’, and ‘adult’ are all appropriate identifiers, when inurement to life’s disappointments coexists with childlike cravings for unadulterated happiness. It is an anti-coming-of-age story where the protagonists don’t necessary learn anything. First produced in 1996,This is Our Youth was Kenneth Lonergan’s launch pad, fomenting his career as a playwright and filmmaker. The play has been widely praised, and its revival this year (first in Chicago and now on Broadway) has been celebrated by nearly every critic in New York.
Youth is not a plot-driven story; it is a day in the life of vulnerable Warren, his domineering friend Dennis and his elusive crush, Jessica. Warren’s been kicked out of his parents’ house for his pot habit, and, after stealing fifteen grand from his father, arrives at Dennis’ apartment in search of somewhere to sleep and (more generally) a happier existence. The events that follow include buying and selling drugs, pawning Warren's toy collection, and wooing Jessica – each clumsily strategized and mostly ending in disappointment.
The fact that not much happens is not an outright problem, per se. Anna D. Shapiro’s direction packs physicality and tension into each moment, whether it’s a destructive football toss, a boyish wrestling match, a sprayed plate of cocaine, or a spontaneous dance. She makes the play pulsate. But while the lack of action isn’t a flaw, the lack of ideas is, and I kept wondering if Lonergan was trying to say anything larger than “here are three directionless people at the cusp of adulthood.”
The most illuminating idea, as I saw it, comes from Jessica in Act I. She arrives at Dennis’ apartment to the delight of Warren, and as Warren tries to flirt with her, they begin to have an argument about identity. The topic at hand is whether personalities are fixed throughout life, and Jessica argues that they change entirely, almost unrecognizably. The free-loving activists of the 60s become the Reagan-supporting lawyers of the 80s, she says. More so, if we were to find a letter that we wrote years earlier, it would contain emotions, details and beliefs that are foreign to ones we have later in life.
The idea is a poignant one for young adults who hold thoughts passionately though not long term. I awaited the follow-through of this sentiment in the second act, but frustratingly it never came. The final note of the play is simply that Warren lacks connection to anyone: not to his parents, who ostracize him emotionally and physically; not to Jessica, who leaves Warren wondering if she wants him or just self-affirmation; and not to Dennis, who keeps Warren as a close friend because his abuse of Warren goes unchecked.
It’s testament to the cast that so much pathos rises out of an energetic but bleak script. Kieran Culkin is a perfect asshole in the role of Dennis (his abrasiveness is reminiscent of his great performance in Igby Goes Down years ago) and while the play spends too long on Dennis’ uncontrolled anger, Culkin commits wholeheartedly to it. Tavi Gevinson (Jessica) speaks her lines a bit too theatrically but authentically portrays the mixed bag of confidence and delusion specific to those who know they’re desirable but don’t know how to handle it. Most memorable is Michael Cera who – though he seems to reprise the same sensitive role repeatedly – plunges deep into the pain of Warren and makes him endearing, funny, and heartbreaking.
Another redeemer is the set. Created by Todd Rosenthal, it centers on the interior of Dennis’ apartment, cluttered and style-less with touches of the early 80s like the extra-long extension cord on his beige telephone. The exterior of the apartment – an old white brick façade – rises high toward the proscenium to meet to gaze of audience members in the balcony. The building – not rundown, but not upscale either – feels like anyone’s first New York apartment. It may not be glamorous, but just being there feels grown up.
It reminded me of a line Shoshanna says on Girls when she walks into Hannah’s apartment: “Um, seriously though, I like really think that the best years of your life are like totally gonna happen here.” Like Girls, This is Our Youth presents the chasm between the desired life and life as it is. It's a great point of takeoff. Sadly, the play never leaves the ground.