Steppenwolf’s revival of “This Is Our Youth,” Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play about disaffected rich kids in the Reagan era, might be re-titled (or marketed as) “These Are Your Parents.” These post-adolescent slackers living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1982 could easily have grown up to reproduce themselves as our current crop of privileged youth. In fact, this demographic is turning out in strong numbers for the show, drawn by its cast of baby stars Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson. That makes two generations of potential ticket buyers for this superbly directed staging. We can see the family theater parties now.
For a static period piece that’s all talk and no action, Lonergan’s plotless play is a charmer. Chalk that up to some tart, terrific dialogue and puppyish characters you can both laugh at and take to your heart — hallmarks of this legit scribe (“The Waverly Gallery,” “The Starry Messenger”) who also has a career going as a screenwriter-director (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret”).
Previous productions of the play, which seems to have an enduring lifespan, have provided a nice launching pad for a number of young actors on the way up. Mark Ruffalo and Josh Hamilton were in the original Broadway production; other alumni include Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Colin Hanks and Casey Affleck. Here, helmer Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County,” “Of Mice and Men”) has chosen a winning trio of thesps and guided them to that sweet spot where they have a nice, easy rapport.
Cera, who perfected his adorable-nerd persona on “Arrested Development” and in a mixed bag of good-to-godawful movies, is the living poster boy for Alienated Youth as Warren Straub, a 19-year-old college dropout and social misfit. Intelligent nerds like Warren will eventually take over the world, but not in the money-driven, coke-fueled cultural climate of the moment. For now, this awkward kid is the Nowhere Man, a role that activates Cera’s genius for physical comedy, as well as his compassion for a sweet boy who is eager, but a little afraid to grow up.
Having been kicked out of the house by his unfeeling father, Warren packs up his precious childhood toys, impulsively snatches $15,000 from his dad’s overflowing piggy bank, and shows up at the apartment of his friend Dennis, who is also persona non grata at home. Kieran Culkin, who played Warren in a revival in Sydney, has grown into the difficult role of Dennis, a wired stoner who deals drugs out of his apartment and asserts his manhood by bullying his friend. Despite all the abuse Dennis heaps on poor Warren, Culkin exposes enough of his insecurities to humanize his unlikable character.
To provide focus for these two interesting character studies, Lonergan has come up with a flimsy plot involving a botched scheme for the guys to use Warren’s $15,000 in a major drug deal. That device leads nowhere, but it does present Cera with a hilarious solo scene when Warren finds himself alone in Dennis’s apartment and tries to cut the coke himself.
To make up for the no-show plot, the scribe comes up with another character study, this one of a girl named Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) who functions as a love interest for Warren. Gevinson, who became a media phenom through her fashion website “Rookie,” has a voice so shrill it could set off station house alarms. But under Shapiro’s actor-sensitive direction, she’s learned to make herself comfortable on the stage and to bring something personal to her underwritten role.
The 18-year-old thesp also proves to be a wonderful listener. Those huge eyes never leave the face of the person who’s talking to her, which brings both sweetness and pathos to her close-encounter scenes with the painfully awkward Warren. Being younger than springtime, she also looks darling in the cute (but hardly in period) costume Ann Roth designed for her.