Chicago Theater Review: THIS IS OUR YOUTH (Pre-Broadway Run at Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 20, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

ORPHANS OF THE RICH

Warren (Michael Cera) and Dennis (Kieran Culkin) have an argument in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan.No one captures the volatile complexity and fragile bravado of mixed-up young adults better than the angry young plays of the 20th century. In Look Back in Anger, Dealer’s Choice, Stupid Kids, and subUrbia lost generations find dead-ends they either deserve or don’t. This Is Our Youth, Anna Shapiro’s pile-driving (and New York-bound) staging of Kenneth Lonergan’s Off-Broadway hit, is a devastating slice of youth. This object lesson in inaction is perfectly chosen and delivered by Steppenwolf Theatre to speak to today’s damaged dreamers.

It’s 1982–the start of the “greed is good” Reagan era–and a one-bedroom West Side apartment becomes a dead zone for three sad rich kids. Displayed as a runway cutting the upstairs stage, the pad (a case of total immersion, thanks to set designer Todd Rosenthal) belongs to Dennis, a hot-wired, upscale drug pusher. Macho Dennis lives to abuse Warren, a passive pothead who’s been evicted by his gangster dad.

(left to right) Warren (Michael Cera) and Dennis (Kieran Culkin) discuss a potential business deal in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan.Though both boy-men suffer from driven fathers who sucked the life from everyone around them, Dennis’ thinly disguised insecurity, perversely enough, doesn’t make him a whit kinder to Warren. He belittles him with Olympic intensity. A nexus of negativity, Dennis sees no contradiction in bragging about his independence because his parents (who loathe each other more than their son) pay for his apartment. With him the question is always whether self-loathing or self-delusion will triumph, sometimes at the same time. The sudden death of an obese customer makes him taste his mortality more than any nose candy.

Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan.Indeed, refuge with runaway Dennis exposes Warren (who has stolen $15,000 from his father’s stash) to an onslaught of cascading miseries, including a devastating—well—dispersal of drugs. Thanks to some monumentally rotten luck (almost too much for one day), everything the guy hopes for turns to shit. Warren’s expressionless reactions to his catalogue of calamities is the saddest sight on any stage.

Wayward Warren’s highest hope was always Jessica. An equally intense seeker, Jessica seems a kindred soul, paralyzed by the shallow stuff around her and unsure if people ever connect. The same force that repels insecure Warren from everything else draws him to Jessica. Heartbreakingly intricate, their brief encounter, which includes the balcony of the Plaza Hotel, inventories virtually everything that can go right and wrong in love.

Dennis (Kieran Culkin) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan.The cocaine notwithstanding, these New York preps are really “high on fear.” Jessica, played with tensile vulnerability by Tavi Gevinson, is afraid that her better self will get swallowed by a mean future; for her, identity is a trick of the light. She knows how easily a girl’s reputation becomes her destiny and sex is the surest ticket to seller’s remorse.

(left to right) Dennis (Kieran Culkin) and Warren (Michael Cera) look through Warren’s record collection in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan.Played by Kieran Culkin with full-throttle, control-freak mania, wheeler-dealer bullyboy Dennis confuses motion with purpose and intimidation with success. Sadly, the pain he won’t admit he inflicts on Warren.

Caught in his own embattled decency, Warren ends up too honest to be happy. Michael Cera, an actor who despite a devastating deadpan spins emotions like a cyclorama, delivers one of the most soul-shaking losers to haunt a Chicago stage. You can smell his psychic sweat. Trapped between schemes that fail and love that self-destructs, this throw-away kid just wants to find something real.

Most fascinating is how the dialogue defines these characters by the future they imagine. Jessica believes we grow by repudiating our past. Warren is certain that who he is now guarantees who he’ll be forever. Both, of course, are wrong. Dennis just lives in the very messy moment.

This is still our youth.

(left to right) Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) and Warren (Michael Cera) share a slow dance in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED

photos by Michael Brosilow

This Is Our Youth
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
scheduled to end on July 27, 2014
for tickets, call 312-335-1650
or visit www.steppenwolf.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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