Cera, Culkin and Gevinson take on the dark world of teenage drug dealing in ’80s Manhattan.
This is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan was written in 1996 and takes place in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1982, but still manages to be relevant and engaging today. The Broadway production, which stars Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, tells the story of Warren Straub, a college dropout who after being thrown out of his shady businessman father's house steals $15,000 from him and flees to the apartment of his drug dealer friend Dennis, utterly clueless as to what to do next. But despite the thematic connections, this is no Superbad.
Not That Kind of Laughter
Instead, the sort of laughter This is Our Youth provokes is that of astonishment—you can't believe they just went there. Whether it's Warren's breaking of a sculpture made by Dennis's girlfriend that almost destroys their relationship to an incredibly uncomfortable argument between Warren and Jessica about whether personalities change drastically with age, this play leaves you gasping more often than laughing. It's also one that faces dark issues head on—drug overdoses, domestic violence and the existential conflict of the high college student.
The actors do a good job keeping all of the stoned conversation entertaining rather than annoying. Kieran Culkin as Dennis in particular is an intensely charismatic drug dealer, the perfect salesman who you would be happy to listen to spin his stories for hours. Michael Cera is his typical, stilted, awkward self, which is the perfect fit for the character of aimless and adrift Warren.
Tavi Gevinson, however, on stage for the first time as Warren's crush Jessica, rivals Cera for sheer awkwardness, and that's saying something. Their odd synergy is sometimes fantastic and entertaining, and other times utterly cringeworthy. The second act in general flows better, with fewer monologues that make you consciously aware they're monologues and more of the genuine characters revealed.
Stunning on Stage
The set is a faithful reproduction of an '80s UWS apartment, down to the skylight and surrounding buildings that you almost can't believe aren't real. It's extremely detailed, filled with the specific clutter of a 20-something rich kid drug dealer, and the entire show provides a subtle commentary on the worthlessness of material objects. As soon as something, from a handmade sculpture to an antique family heirloom baseball hat to a bag of cocaine, is established as valuable, it is destroyed and reduced to nothing in a matter of seconds.
The stakes in this play are so high that they shatter the security of the most privileged of "our youth." But as it slowly becomes clear, the darkness in this ideal world was there all along. It may have taken the death of Dennis's friend to acknowledge it overtly, but Warren's abusive father and murdered sister are constantly on his mind, coloring how he sees and interacts with the world.
A Clever, Far-Reaching Production
While This is Our Youth does a brilliant job of painting a portrait of an entire culture through the cast of characters that never appear onstage--Dennis's girlfriend Valerie, friends Natalie, Stewie and Christian, all three leads' parents, Warren's dad's terrifying driver/bodyguard Jason and more--it is ultimately a bromance play. Warren and Dennis's friendship is always really what is at stake, and it is what endures after everything else has happened. And while this is arguably a play in which there are no real consequences for the characters' actions, this revival provides a critique of class privilege that is still very relevant today.
Lonergan's play is a snapshot of a particular moment in a particular segment of society, but it has proven to be so much more than that. The trio of actors and director Anna D. Shapiro give the show new life in a physical, energetic, drug-addled production that may resound deeply with more than a few audience members. Don't worry, you don't have to disclose anything.
This is Our Youth runs at the Cort Theatre through January.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.