Is this OUR Youth? His sister was murdered six years ago, his rich, abusive father has just kicked him out of the house, and 19-year-old Warren, portrayed by Michael Cera in the crackling Broadway debut production of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play, drags a suitcase full of his vintage toy collection and $15,000 in cash that he has stolen from his Dad to the Upper West Side apartment of Dennis (Kieran Culkin), his 21-year-old drug dealer. Warren asks Dennis whether he can stay with him for a couple of days. Dennis tells him to go somewhere else, but there’s nowhere else to go. “Everyone’s parents are home,” Warren says. “I’m not allowed in their houses.”
“Nobody can stand to have you around. And you can’t get laid,” says Dennis, who calls Warren his friend.
This is far from Avenue Q, although both plays focus on bewildered people navigating the unnerving transition between childhood and life as an independent adult. Given the harshness of the characters’ attitudes and their recklessness, the title can sound admonishing – as if the playwright is asking us to join him in tut-tutting the anomie, aimlessness and self-destruction of an entire generation. But one monologue offers a clue to what the title, and the play, is really about. In a long self-justifying (and, one suspects, partly self-parodying) speech, Dennis defends to Warren his making a profit off his friends through his drug dealing. “I’m providing you schmucks with such a crucial service…Plus I’m providing you with precious memories of your youth, for when you’re fuckin’ old…. You’re going to remember your youth as like a gray stoned haze punctuated by a bunch of beatings from your Dad and, like, my jokes.” The title, in other words, is a statement from the characters.
The beauty and wonder of Lonergan’s play is that it depicts with unblinking specificity a group of foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, hyper-articulate but clueless rich kids on the Upper West Side in 1982. But the playwright somehow brings us inside those characters, with lots of humor and little judgment, so that the audience can freely identify with them – not “What have our youth come to?” but “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
Director Anne D. Shapiro, who won a Tony for “August: Osage County,” and did wonders with “The Motherfucker with the Hat,” here again teams up with scenic designer Todd Rosenthal to present a production of this three-character play suitable for an 1,100-seat Broadway house like the Cort, with largely positive results. Rosenthal’s set, like that with Hat, opens up to suggest a wider city — there is an impressively realistic backdrop of the post-war apartment buildings that loom behind and above Dennis’s apartment. The characters’ rough-housing seems designed to fill up the stage.
All three performers are making their Broadway debuts, with little to no previous stage experience. Those who know and like Michael Cera from “Arrested Development” and “Juno” will be happy getting just about the same poker-faced, man-boy character in “This Is Your Youth,” although he is projecting his voice in a way that makes clear he is new to the stage. His interpretation seems narrower in range than Mark Ruffalo, the original Warren Straub (a role that began Ruffalo’s collaboration with Lonergan, which led to one of my favorite films, “You Can Count On Me.”) But Cera contributes a comic timing that lands every laugh, and a final touching moment that feels devastating.
Tavi Gevinson, who became a celebrity at age 12 because of her fashion blog, Style Rookie, is at age 18 (born the year “This Is Our Youth” debuted), impressive as a stage presence, holding her own with two movie veterans as Jessica Goldman, the object of Warren’s desire. She has a horn of a voice, and a clear-cut future as a performer if she wants it, and her duet of attraction and anxiety with Cera certainly holds our attention, even if there is less in her character of an apparent interior life that a more experienced actress might have brought to the role.
As Dennis, Culkin delivers striking arias of bullying and bravado that mask the vulnerabilities he shares with his cowed pal. It is a performance that makes you hope he will return (again and again) to the theater.
Not much seems to happen on stage in the course of the 48 hours when “This Is Our Youth” is supposed to take place. But the characters would consider what happens off-stage during that time cataclysmic- nothing less than the end of their youth.
At Cort Theater
By Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Cast: Michael Cera (Warren Straub), Kieran Culkin (Dennis Ziegler) and Tavi Gevinson (Jessica Goldman).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission.
This is Our Youth is scheduled to run through January 4th.