'This is Our Youth': Theater Review

This is Our Youth Still - H 2014
Brigitte Lacombe

This is Our Youth Still - H 2014

Fine performances and sensitive direction make this period piece seem as fresh as ever

Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson star in this first Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play

This is Our Youth was already a period piece when it made its 1996 Off-Broadway premiere with a cast including a pre-stardom Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton and Missy Yager. Kenneth Lonergan’s comedy-drama set in 1982, Reagan-era New York City depicts the aimless lives of a trio of young people unable to fully connect not only with each other but also with themselves. That it still works as a moving and funny portrait of disaffected youth despite its vintage, pre-social media trappings is a testament to the script’s sensitivity and astuteness.

The play is now being given its first Broadway revival featuring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, all making their Main Stem debuts, in a production imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and directed by Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County). Unfortunately, much like the characters, the intimate play seems somewhat adrift in this much larger venue featuring an elaborate, overblown apartment building setting that seems to dwarf the action below.

The work is set in the ramshackle apartment of twenty-year-old Dennis (Culkin) provided by his wealthy artist father. A low-level drug dealer who seems to mainly sell his illicit wares to his friends, he’s a self-styled cock of the walk with a ready stream of smooth patter and sardonic putdowns.

His main foil is his nerdy younger friend Warren (Cera), who shows up one afternoon bearing a briefcase containing $15,000 in cash that he’s impulsively stolen from his apparently mob-connected father. Since Warren’s already spent some of the money, Dennis, worried about the father’s retribution coming back to him, devises a plan to use it to seed a cocaine deal whose profits will more than make up for the shortfall. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the option of selling Warren’s collection of antique toys and action figures.

Complicating things further is the arrival of Jessica (Gevinson), a comely prep school girl on whom Warren has long had an unrequited crush. When Dennis leaves to make up with his estranged (unseen) girlfriend, the two begin an awkward and tentative courtship that prompts Warren to propose that they spend the night together in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, paid for with his ill-gotten gains, which she surprisingly accepts.

That’s pretty much it when it comes to the plot, other than depicting the pained aftereffects of Warren and Jessica’s liaison and the two men’s fumbling attempts at replacing the money. The strength of the piece lies in the sharpness of the dialogue — “These are the proceeds of my unhappy childhood,” declares Warren of the money he’s stolen — and the keen observational skills that the youthful angst-channeling playwright has poured into the proceedings. Particularly effective are the scenes between Warren and Jessica, especially the moment when — invited by him to request whatever gift she wants — she chooses, much to his anger and consternation, the beloved baseball cap that once belonged to his grandfather.

Unfortunately, what must have worked beautifully in the Steppenwolf’s far more intimate environs doesn’t fully register in the large house, making the play seem smaller than it really is. This is despite the expert direction by Shapiro, who’s guided the performers, two of them playing their first stage roles, into vividly memorable turns.

The 31-year-old Culkin, who previously played Warren in a London production more than a decade ago, is undeniably too old for the role, but he perfectly captures Dennis’ youthful braggadocio as well as his carefully hidden insecurities. At 26, Cera is similarly a bit mature for his part, but his baby face and adolescent mannerisms render him fully convincing. Playing not too far from his familiar dorky screen persona, he makes an impressive stage debut, fully mining the pathos and humor of the fumbling Warren and easily scoring the evening’s biggest laughs.

The 18-year-old, waif-like Gevinson has no such problem in terms of age, although her previous acting experience is mainly limited to a small role in the 2013 film Enough Said. Her presence in such a prominent role is no doubt due to her current status as an It Girl thanks to her popular fashion blog and teenage girl-oriented website Rookie, which she founded in 2011. But the awkwardness she displays onstage, whether intentional or not, works beautifully for the role of a young woman struggling with a transition into adulthood, and her off-kilter line readings are consistently engaging.

This play clearly intended to appeal to younger audiences may have trouble attracting a significant Broadway crowd, with Cera’s presumed star power being a major factor. But while it would no doubt have benefited from being presented in a smaller theater, it’s still a pleasure to see its talented playwright making his long belated Broadway debut.

Cast: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson

Director: Anna D. Shapiro

Playwright: Kenneth Lonergan

Scenic designer: Todd Rosenthal

Costume designer: Ann Roth

Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt  

Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen

Presented by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Jon B. Platt, Roy Furman, The Shubert Organization, Ruth Hendel, Scott M. Delman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sonia Friedman, Tulchin Bartner, The Araca Group, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Catherine & Fred Adler, Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson