As theatrical conundrums go, here’s one of the more pleasurable of late: Which of the three neophyte stage performers in the London premiere of “This Is Our Youth” constitutes the greatest revelation? Auds faced with the happy task of deciding for themselves — and Anna Paquin, Hayden Christensen, and Jake Gyllenhaal are singly and collectively wonderful — will in the process gain exposure to that rare contemporary American play that seems to have been enriched in the transatlantic crossing.
Off Broadway in 1998, where I first saw it, Kenneth Lonergan’s widely acclaimed success heralded a playwright blessed with an ear so finely attuned to slacker-speak that every “um” and “man” seemed to encapsulate an era. Displaced to London in a different production, Lonergan’s New York tale lands with an altogether mighty and thrilling bang, showing just how universal a localized story can be. In the interplay between three articulate yet adrift Manhattanites, Lonergan has excavated a sense of loss that lies well beyond geography.
That’s one of the achievements of Laurence Boswell’s deceptive production, which changes gears following an uneasy beginning (at the outset, Gyllenhaal and Christensen seem like they might have been better off swapping roles) to arrive at the precise fusion of comedy, satiric observation and deeply embedded pain that the writing itself describes. It’s a tribute to the evening that a first-act reference to “a ruined life” can prompt a laugh while hauntingly underscoring what follows the intermission.
Jeremy Herbert’s purposefully shambolic set provides a visual metaphor for the jumble of emotions Lonergan so clearly and cleanly sets forth. Don’t be fooled by an opening dynamic that would seem to give the upper hand to Dennis (Christensen), the alarmingly hip dope dealer who finds his life upended by the arrival of friend Warren (Gyllenhaal), bearing $15,000 of his father’s dubiously obtained cash. Seemingly the profiteering aggressor, Dennis is revealed by the play’s lacerating close to be as defenseless as the awkward and clumsy Warren. The difference: Dennis cloaks his insecurities beneath an audacious if risky modus vivendi — better to freak people out, he reasons, before they do the same to you.
If Warren nevertheless dominates proceedings (the same was true Off Broadway), that’s because Lonergan’s plot requires Dennis’ removal from the confines of the play’s lone room. And so Warren finds himself alternately alone and entertaining Jessica (Paquin), the spiky teenager on whom he has set his heart.
It may seem daft to invoke Chekhov with regard to so apparently site-specific a work, but Warren’s farewell to his toaster carries conscious echoes of “The Cherry Orchard” and Gayev’s paean to his beloved bookcase. And just as Chekhov’s plays generally lack a defined plot, so, too, does “This Is Our Youth” — until you step back and see that the shifting currents of affection among three friends are, in a master dramatist’s hands, themselves momentous.
Boswell last directed the West End revival of “Joe Egg” (he next segues to — wait for it! — Madonna’s London stage debut), another play with tricky alterations in tone. But what’s amazing about “This Is Our Youth” is how seamlessly orchestrated the play feels, its landscape encompassing burgeoning romance and long-abiding friendship alongside sudden and brutal ache. All three of Lonergan’s “youth” have parental “issues,” though the scars cut particularly and frighteningly deep for the young men. Warren’s father has thrown him out due to what he refers to as a “slight policy dispute” (the euphemistic drollness is perfect), while Dennis’ mother’s civic-mindedness can’t disguise the fact that she’s a “fucking psycho.”
The acting challenge is to project charm as well as confusion, a test that this cast passes far more even-handedly than I remember in New York. Infrequent lapses into her native New Zealand accent notwithstanding, Paquin manages to be at once prickly and endearing, playing someone who can’t stop testing a love that on some level she knows to be true. Blessed with the play’s showpiece part, Gyllenhaal couldn’t be less like Mark Ruffalo, the original Warren in New York. But inhabiting a layabout whose vocabulary swings from the hyperarticulate to the hesitant, Gyllenhaal captures both Warren’s mock-grandiosity (“If only society would give us a chance,” he intones at one point) as well as an essential sweetness.
Christensen has the toughest task — it’s not easy acting the bully, especially with a faux-Brando accent — and rises to it triumphantly, the imminent “Star Wars” star announcing himself as a rangy and commanding stage presence who captures Dennis’ every contradiction. (An added bonus: The actor actually possesses the “beautiful eyes, intense and direct” that Dennis is said to have.)
It’s illustrative of “This Is Our Youth” that the same person who sends chills down the spine admitting that he is “sick sick sick” is not long after berating his best friend for a “talent for misery.” We lash out as quickly and readily as we love, and sometimes the two disturbingly align, which may be just one of the numerous perceptions so piercingly captured by a play that could not seem more adult.