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A CurtainUp Review
This Is Our Youth
By Elyse Sommer
Berkshire Theatre Review
The New Group, under the leadership of its artistic director Scott Elliott, has already enriched the Off-Broadway scene with two plays, Ecstacy in 1994 and Curtain s in 1995. With Kenneth Lonergan's new play This Is Our Youth the company brings another welcome and substantial addition to the contemporary drama scene. The playwright's strengths, the sharply delineated characters and his ear for the street smart vernacular are fully realized by the loving care given this production by the company and the play's director Mark Brokaw.
Boiled down to its essentials, This Is Our Youth examines the lives of three post-adolescents. The action spans two days in 1982, two years after Ronald Reagan became president. The cast consists of three characters, with the focus on 21-year-old Dennis and 19-year-old Warren. Both troubled sons of fathers with successful careers but unsuccessful marriages. Both are college dropouts trapped on the bridge that separates adolescence from adulthood. Dennis is a drug dealer, obviously small-time since his artist father and social worker mother still pay for his grungy studio. Warren is the more needy and sympathetic of the two, a sort of updated Holden Caulfield, though not quite as bright. The play's dramatic action is precipitated when Warren seeks refuge with his friend after his often abusive father has thrown him out of the Central Park West house that hasn't been a real home since a family tragedy nine years earlier. Dennis is the kind of friend who typifies the cliche "with friends like that you don't need enemies." Warren's suitcase is filled not with clothes but with treasured mementos of old toys that represent happier days. That collection becomes something of a third symbolic character as the play moves towards its climax.
While Lonergan certainly can't be accused of romanticizing his vision of upper middle-class disillusionment, self-delusion and self-destructiveness, his play is consistently moving and punctuated throughout with laughs that have razor-sharp edges. The people who banned The Catcher In the Rye when it came out in 1950 could not have envisioned the behavior patterns and language of Dennis and Warren. Yet, while older and more anti-social than Holden, Warren is every bit as vulnerable and even Dennis remains recognizably human, more weak than genuinely evil.
Happily, the actors do full justice to their parts, with performances that vibrate with accuracy, energy and flawless timing. Josh Hamilton ably captures the superficial cool of the manipulative, drug-dealing, Dennis. Mark Ruffalo, manages to subjugate his good looks and his character's underlying intelligence beneath a believably discombobulated loser's persona. Missy Yager makes the most of her part in the evening's proceedings. Her Jessica is brash and funny. The interchanges between her and Warren are touching even as they remind one of old Nichols and May skits ("wait, I have a hair in my mouth" before they begin dancing, and "Check him out, Mr. Dip" when they do).
Other parts contributing to the success of the entire evening:
As in the previously mentioned Catcher In the Rye, this play leaves the audience with lingering questions--and hope. Holden Caulfield gave up his dream of going some place out West, some place without "phonies" because his little sister needed him. It is this same sense of recognizing the needs of another person, in this case his father, that may save Warren. As for Dennis. The real optimists in the audience will believe that as he pulled Warren into his web of self-destructiveness, Warren's shirttails may pull him along to a less desolate future.
P.S. In 1998 the play moved to the McGinn-Cazale Theater at Broadway and 76th St. -- the very neighborhood where its three characters live -- with two of the three original actor and practically all of the creative team intact. That production eventually moved on to the larger Douglas Fairbanks Theater on 42nd Street where it enjoyed a deservedly healthy run.
Berkshire Theatre Production of This Is Our Youth - also reviewed by Elyse Sommer
This Is Our Youth was Kenneth Longergan's first play. Its story of two disillusioned 1980's young upper West Side kids made a deep impression on me at its 1996 world premiere. Their parents went from have-nothing liberals to financial have-it-alls with troubled family relationships that left their children on a go-nowhere treadmill. Lonergan's dialogue, while not poetic was right on the mark in its authenticity, with "like, totally, whatever" laced through every other sentence. In 1998 the play had another Off-Broadway run with two of the three original actors. Since then there have been a number of regional productions, the latest at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's second stage, the Unicorn where I've now seen the production a third time.
The sense of three young people in the 1980s disconnected from their parents as well as from the world they live in still resonates. The scene towards the end of the first act when Warren and Jessica get to know each other remains at once hilariously funny and touching. When Jessica tells Warren, that like his parents at the same age, who he is now is totally different from what he will be, she seems to be expressing the playwright's sense that Warren won't always allow himself to be abused (by his father, or Dennis or his own insecurity and lingering grief over the tragedy that threw his family into emotional turmoil). The old toys that are Warren's passion and figure importantly in the play's two-day time sequence stand out ever more sharply as symbols of the search by this rebel without a cause for a happier and more stable world. Having seen Lonergan's terrific film You Can Count On Me; and his subsequent plays, The Waverly Gallery and his most recent Lobby Hero (a must see for anyone in New York before Labor Day!), it's heartening to see how the playwright has honed his special affinity for making us understand and sympathize with people who have a way of sabotaging their own lives.
Obviously no second or third viewing can quite recapture the thrill of discovering a new voice in a near perfect production. If the Unicorn production does not tread new ground in terms of staging and acting, it nevertheless captures Lonergan's knack for dialogue that, to paraphrase the play's vernacular "it's like, totally, totally funny, like it stays with you." Greg Keller nails Warren's speech patterns and awkward body language very much as Mark Ruffalo did. James Berry relies a bit too much on yelling to fully capture Dennis's mix of charisma and underlying vulnerability. Sarah Avery delivers the many terrific lines the playwright has written her with clarity but, like Berry, she's falls a bit short on the role's vulnerability.
The setting proves that the this handsome little theater's stage lends itself as well to a kitchen sink staging as the typically less realistic productions seen there. Warren's studio apartment is aptly cluttered and messy though a cutout, scrim wall that allows the audience to see Warren and Jessica walking to the front door seems to serve little purpose that couldn't have been accomplished with the sound effects of footsteps climbing the stairs. On the subject of sound design, while the music from Warren's record collection does come into play during the terrific dance sequence between him and Jessica, some incidental music would have added. Moira Shaughnessy's costumes, especially for Ms. Avery, are just fine.
If there's one major directorial misstep, it's at the end. Oliver Butler has both Dennis and Warren smoking a joint. This is counter to the script's stage direction that has Dennis smoking but Warren watching. We see Dennis still dealing with his nervous despair by smoking pot or, to use one of Lonergan's favorite words, " whatever". Warren's not smoking, would have given visual impact to the major journey forward he has made.
Berkshire Production Details
Directed by Oliver Butler
Cast: Greg Keller as Warren, James Barry as Dennis and Sarah Avery as Jessica
Set design: Paul Anthony Olive
Costume design: Moira Shaughnessy
Lighting Design: Burke J. Wilmore
Music Consultant: Adam Silverman
Fight Choreographer: Annie Nuttall
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA, 413/298-5536
6/14//01-7/14/01; opening 6/15/01 -- $20 general admission
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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