Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin are the latest star actors to take a crack at Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,” the 1996 play that has always attracted notable talent thanks to the depth, pathos and wit of its portrait of adrift, privileged post-adolescents in Reagan-era Manhattan. More than a decade after a West End revival that starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Paquin, Cera and Culkin topline a new staging now playing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater prior to a Broadway run that opens in September. Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County,” “Of Mice and Men”) directs this excellent, spare, in-the-round production, clearly focused on letting the actors develop their characters in an intimate space before scaling the production up to a large proscenium house in New York. If Cera steals the show with his ability to meld the humor and emotion, he does so in part because newcomer Tavi Gevinson is so clearly able to steal his character’s heart.
Cera plays Warren, a nerd-ish rich kid who shows up at his friend Dennis’s apartment with $15,000 he has stolen from his menacing father, who has kicked him out of the house. Warren’s already spent some of the cash, so Dennis (Culkin) comes up with a scheme to recoup through a cocaine deal. There isn’t much plot, but there is a whole lot of dialogue, and over time the veneers of the characters shed away to reveal wholly human young adults trying to figure out who they are, what they want and how to avoid becoming their parents. It’s the epitome of a character-driven work.
As the popular, over-confident Dennis, Culkin berates and belittles his disciple Warren even as he attempts to solve his problems. Culkin proves adept at showing us the moments when Dennis is caught off guard, even down to the way he eyes the phone suspiciously whenever it rings. Over time, the actor carefully lets the audience in on Dennis’s tactics — attacking before being attacked — before Lonergan makes them explicit in one of the character-revealing monologues toward the end of the play. Culkin is the most refined of the actors on stage, if not the most fascinating to watch.
Cera delivers a performance that is at once humble and commanding; he’s relaxed, a careful listener, always in-the-moment, and makes you hang on his every perfectly-timed word. It’s not quite clear whether the physical awkwardness is due to a shortage of stage experience or a strong acting choice — he spends a lot of time with one hand in his pocket — but the lack of polish works for Warren. The emotional awkwardness, clearly intended, is a Cera specialty, given the actor’s wondrously instinctual way of investing characters with an immensely likable self-consciousness and vulnerability. When physical shtick is called for, Cera delivers it with a timing as ideal as his comic banter.
Gevinson, as Warren’s crush Jessica, will undoubtedly garner a fair share of the press attention as the play moves to Broadway. At 18, she is already something of an internet media superstar — she started a fashion blog when she was 11 and has expanded it into a unique outlet for teen girl expression.
Unlike Cera, she has something of a mannered presence, and it takes a little time to recognize the mannerisms as honest ones. While there is some raw tension, there is also something special about watching a young actor who can be vulnerable enough to blush on stage. Kudos to Shapiro, who seems to have guided Gevinson to channel whatever distracted discomfort she may feel in front of an audience into the circumstances of the scene.
As actors, Cera and Gevinson are very different, just as their characters are: Warren doesn’t question his impulses, while Jessica questions every one of hers. What we end up with are two rich and amusing scenes between two instinctually talented actors, following recognizable rituals of courtship and post-sex awkwardness.
While much is made of time period of the play — set in 1982 Manhattan amidst a group of young people at odds in their values with Ronald Reagan and the country that elected him — the era doesn’t drive the piece. These characters are products of their culture and their families, unique to themselves. Lonergan was writing about a time and a milieu he knew.
Now, of course, the play is notable for what isn’t there — this is pre-AIDS consciousness, pre-Al Qaeda, pre-cellphones and pre-Internet. Shapiro avoids all period kitsch, allowing us to recognize that these same figures today would be dealing with exactly the same types of problems but in a wholly different world. The Internet has changed everything, but dealing with a famous, sick father, or living on after the murder of a family member, or struggling with adult identity, or recognizing one’s own mortality, or even questioning whether you really like your friends after all, hasn’t lost relevance or relatability.
“This Is Our Youth” remains a modest but meaningful and moving play with complex characters and ripe dialogue. Add talented actors and sensitive direction. Stir.