Kenneth Lonergan’s game-changing 1996 play This Is Our Youth — now playing at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through July 27 before a Broadway run beginning Aug. 18 — is pretty much unkillable if cast well. (Don’t forget, this is the play that launched the career of a relative unknown named Mark Ruffalo.) The play has three fully realized characters, all deftly conceived for young actors or a boon for those actors who can still play young. And each get marvelous opportunities to flesh out Lonergan’s unique dissections of overmoneyed underachievers. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Hayden Christensen, and Colin Hanks are but a handful of talents who’ve tackled the play. And Lonergan’s caustic comedy of errors tends to enhance the natural charisma of the actors on stage.
Warren (the note-perfect Michael Cera) is a restless, bull-in-the-china-shop teen who has just boosted $15,000 from his father’s home (”the proceeds from my unhappy childhood,” in his words), and seeks refuge in the parent-paid-for apartment of his pal Dennis (equally terrific Kieran Culkin), a spoiled drug dealer currently in cahoots with a (never-seen) girlfriend. He’s alternately exasperated with and fascinated by Warren, who is still smarting from the brutal murder of his sister. The two are soon joined by Jessica (the fetching Tavi Gevinson, recently seen in Enough Said), an opinionated, beautiful gal pal of Dennis’ on-and-off girlfriend who forces Warren to deal with the possibility of romantic attachment on top of his already-mounting personal guilt.
Despite the occasional flat line reading by Gevinson, Shapiro’s production is already in great shape. (In fairness, Gevinson is still quite impressive, and Cera and Culkin previously played their roles in Sydney, Australia two years ago.) One thing Broadway audiences will not experience, and it’s a shame, is director Anna D. Shapiro’s (August: Osage County) potent in-the-round staging, which brings a whole new level of personal closeness to an already intimate play. Physical activities, such as the ratcheted-up game of catch with a football between Dennis and Warren, generates very real tension. (Youth will be staged on Broadway on a proscenium, with about 700 more seats than Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.)
Stunningly, this will be the first Lonergan work to ever play the Great White Way. Given the strong undercurrent of sadness and regret that runs through Youth, it may seem odd to categorize the show as a comedy (though I haven’t heard this much honest-to-God roaring in a theater since A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). After nearly 20 years, the play has lost none of its raucous, twisted logic, and the smart, sensitive writing continues to dazzle. A?