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Do you remember idling away your early 20s in early-’80s New York City, reclining on a flimsy mattress in your khakis and Topsiders, figuring out ways to score blow? Neither do I, actually. But in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, the exploits of two overeducated, undermotivated products of Upper West Side privilege seem surprisingly, even charmingly familiar, thanks to the playwright’s knack for writing fully enveloping dialogue and filling his scripts with the sort of stammering indecision we all suffer through before we hit 30. At certain points this really does seem to be Our Youtheven if we were born in 1945 or 1975, or in California or Ohio.
Lonergan, best known outside theater circles for writing and directing the superb 2000 film You Can Count on Mehe also wrote the original script for Analyze This and is one of a crew of screenwriters on Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Gangs of New Yorkis in the midst of a mini-retrospective at the Studio Theatre. This Is Our Youth, the 1996 script that first won him significant attention, is running in repertory with Lobby Hero, which appeared off-Broadway last year. For a company like Studio’s, Lonergan is something close to a holy grail: a playwright with hipster credibility whose scripts are funny, thoughtful, and deeply, almost shamelessly accessible. You could confidently invite both your uncle from San Diego and your brother from the East Village to these productions. The heads of regional theaters across the country have got to be praying that Lonergan has not been lost to Hollywood for good.
That said, Lonergan the playwright is still a work in progress. His contemporary morality-play scripts can sometimes feel all the more ragged because they clearly aspire to such smoothness. And from time to time they can read like a jumble of unresolved references. This Is Our Youth, for example, which takes place entirely within the walls of a dingy Manhattan studio, borrows somewhat haphazardly from everybody from Sam Shepard (there’s even a toaster in the play that seems to serve no purpose other than as a nod to True West) to Eugene O’Neill to Mike Leigh. As influences go, of course, those are pretty good ones, and Leigh’s track record of churning out smart scripts for both stage and screen is one Lonergan, who turns 40 next year, would be happy to duplicate on this side of the Atlantic.
Set in 1982 in Manhattan, Youth begins with a buzz on the intercom inside the tiny apartment of 20-something Dennis Zeigler (Jon Bernthal), which is furnished only with a single mattress on the floor, a turntable crammed in next to records by Bowie and the Clash, a couple of rickety chairs, and a table topped with crusty Chinese takeout boxes. (The hyperrealistic set, which even gets the New York apartment-door locks right, is by Giorgos Tsappas.) Soon the doorway is filled by Dennis’ friend Warren Straub (Karl Miller), who’s carrying a suitcase and a backpack containing $15,000 he’s stolen from his abusive father.
Both Dennis and Warren exist within a restricted sphere of rebellion: They’re experimenting with a life as free as possible from responsibility, but they feel guilty about it, because they’re good kids at heart. That means that somenot allof the $15,000 will be wasted on drugs, Dom Perignon, and a suite at the Plaza, but also that there will be a lot of worrying about how to replace every last dollar of it. Lonergan very deftly chalks out the perimeter of that sphere, letting us know that Warren, for example, grew his hair long in college but cropped it off in time for graduation. Both characters are products of the kind of private and expensive but progressive schools that, in Dennis’ words, “think it’s going to cripple you for life if they teach you how to spell.” Dennis, rapturously searching for a way to describe the appearance of some especially good pot, settles on a comparison to a stick of beef satay.
Like Austin and Lee in True West, Dennis and Warren can be seen simply as two sides of the same personality. Dennis, the son of a famous painter, is all bluster and confidence and action; Warren, whose sister was murdered 10 years before, is sweetly inward-looking, seemingly hemmed in by his own inarticulate intelligence. Dennis thumps his chest, berates Warren relentlessly, and calls himself “a Jewish god” and “Jewlius Caesar.” Warren carries around his youth wherever he goes: His suitcase, it turns out, is filled with a toy collection he now gets away with toting around only by calling it “memorabilia” and declaring that he wants to sell it if he can get the right price.
Though Warren enjoys a fling and some refreshingly testosterone-free conversation with Jessica Goldman (Amy Montminy), for the most part the play is a series of struggles between the two guys, as Warren tries to figure out a way to ditch his adolescence without turning into somebody like Dennis. Under Serge Seiden’s direction, it all tumbles forth in a entertaining cascade of language and conniving. Bernthal comes on a little too strong as Denniswhatever subtlety he brings to the performance is overwhelmed by machismo and the kind of accent that belongs more to an outer borough than to Manhattan wealthbut he’s also supremely watchable. Miller is terrific as Warrenbelievable, thoughtful, and able to slow down the play’s headlong pace when he needs to.
Though it’s an earlier work than Lobby Hero, and has its awkward moments, I prefer This Is Our Youth, and I think its production at the Studio is easily the better of the two. Lobby Hero, a kind of whodunit crossed with an ethical fable, aims higherand, at least with its very uneven cast here, falls flatter. This Is Our Youth, like its characters, puts on a charade of keeping its more ambitious goals in checkand is all the more successful and likable for it. CP