Displaying the kind of plucky persistence that’s well beyond the ken of its drug-dazed, resolutely useless heroes, Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” has returned to the Gotham stage, two years after the acclaimed New Group production began a long-fruitless search for another berth. Now at the Second Stage Theater, Lonergan’s sad, comic slice of ’80s anomie has been restaged with exquisite care by its original director, Mark Brokaw, with two of the original three castmembers, Mark Ruffalo and Missy Yager, repeating performances of surpassing sweetness and sensitivity.
Ruffalo plays Warren Straub, the brooding, bruised son of a well-to-do New York lingerie manufacturer with shady associates. After another argument that ended with Warren playing punching bag, he has fled dad’s apartment, where he’d been living while trying to decide what not to do with the rest of his life, taking $ 15,000 he found in his father’s briefcase with him.
But the brief refuge he begs with his drug-dealing buddy Dennis brings only more abuse, as the self-aggrandizing Dennis inflates his own ego by slinging contempt at Warren for the rash stupidity of his theft, even as he suggests they use a portion of the funds to score some cocaine. The play’s long opening scene is a funny (if overextended) evocation, at an almost paint-drying pace, of the proud pointlessness of post-adolescent lives in the Reagan age. (The play’s set in 1982, in a dingy apartment vividly brought to life by Allen Moyer that sports such telling details as a basketball in the kitchen sink.)
Inarticulateness is a badge of honor with these upper-middle-class boys, who’ve had every advantage of an Upper West Side upbringing except the kind of affectionate attention kids of all classes require. With eyebrows permanently furrowed, as if to hide the exposed depths of his doe eyes, Warren’s mode of movement is the awkward slouch, his manner of speaking the darting cynicism buried beneath a welter of post-boomer slang. “I was like, whatever,” is a riposte of typical cogency. Ruffalo’s performance is marvelous, sliding from pathos to pratfalls with startling grace. (His pre-date grooming shtik is the funniest since Woody Allen’s in “Play It Again, Sam.”)
Lonergan, whose ear for the way his characters speak is pitch-perfect, is no less attuned to the simmering potential in their silent hearts. The play’s centerpiece is a scene between Warren and Yager’s Jessica Goldman, the object of Warren’s crush, who arrives when Dennis takes off to score the cocaine. A pert, anxious fashion student living at home with mom and thinking she should have left town for college with the rest of her friends, Jessica draws out Warren’s tenderness in a charming comic tug-of-war that finds them arguing over the development of personality, even as their own bloom before us with a strange suddenness. As Warren’s hopes for a meaningful human connection grow, so, amusingly, does his vocubulary, which becomes studded with words like “ascribe,” “vilify” and “nihilistic.”
Warren and Jessica are poised at the point when life’s possibilities must be embraced or abjured, when a failure to connect could inspire a permanent withdrawal into a cocoon of self-pity that might otherwise be a mere phase. And so their clumsy courtship dance has a terrible poignancy; we see from the sensitive subtext in Ruffalo’s and Yager’s performances that something larger than a liaison is at stake here, something deep and tremulous in both characters’ souls. When the door shuts behind Jessica, leaving Warren alone again, it has a piteous sound.
If the rest of the play matched the captivating poignance of the scenes between Warren and Jessica, “This Is Our Youth” might be a great play, but Lonergan is considerably better at creating characters than he is at dramatic construction. A late development that brings the idea of death looming into Dennis and Warren’s consciousness seems forced, as does the confrontation between the two over the terms of their friendship. And Dennis, played with a blustery intensity by Rosenthal, isn’t drawn with the depth of the other two characters.
But the perfectly fine-tuned interplay between Ruffalo and Yager, orchestrated with unfussy precision by director Brokaw, is luminous with an honesty that shines against the dingy walls that surround their characters, and the dim futures that may lie before them. The truth they bring to this picture of disaffected youth is indeed ageless.