Review: “This Is Our Youth”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through July 27
Tickets: $20-482
Phone: 312-335-1650

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I’ve been working on thinking of Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” as Chekhov for the slacker generation.

This isn’t as farfetched as it may seem. Like Chekhov, Lonergan exposes the existential angst of bored, restless, privileged people who don’t know what to do with themselves or how to get their lives under control. They also have a brush with mortality that affects them in various ways. There’s very little plot to speak of (arguably less than in Chekhov’s plays); money has a key role, and the subtext is just as important—if not more so—than what the characters say.

In this case, those characters are a trio of affluent, alienated Jewish teenagers on New York’s Upper West Side in 1982. Their lives revolve around drugs, and they’re desperately determined not to turn out like the parents they denigrate or despise.

Although you might be wondering why Steppenwolf would revive a 1996 play that’s a snapshot of disaffected youth more than three decades ago—as a pre-Broadway production no less—Anna Shapiro’s savvy direction and her cast of talented young stars makes the show worth seeing. This is especially true because the intimacy of the runway staging in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre almost certainly is more effective than the revamp for a larger New York theater with a proscenium arch stage will be.

Michael Cera’s (“Arrested Development”) understated, nuanced performance as 19-year-old Warren is the glue that holds the evening together. Awkward in everything from his halting speech to his gawky movements (watch the way he holds his lanky body at an angle, or tries to dance), not to mention his buzz cut and receding chin, he’s the deadpan epitome of a depressed screw-up who’s ripe for bullying.

When Warren gets kicked out by his abusive mob-connected lingerie-tycoon father and shows up at his “best friend” Dennis’ apartment with $15,000 he’s stolen as revenge, repercussions are a given. Kieran Culkin’s (“Igby Goes Down,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World”) Dennis, the drug-dealer son of accomplished parents, is the antithesis of Warren: an abrasive, motor-mouthed, acid-tongued, hyperactive know-it-all who gleefully heaps insults on anyone within earshot including his on-again off-again girlfriend on the phone and, of course, Warren. He makes such a bad impression from the outset that I almost regretted being at the theater listening to his diatribes and seeing poor Warren subjected to them.

But the defensive Dennis’ bark is worse than his bite, and Culkin nails his complicated personality. He’s driven by self interest and sheer contrariness but also seems to want to cheer up Warren. So besides coercing him into a complex drug-buying scheme, he sets him up to be alone in the apartment with Jessica, the self-aware young woman Warren longs for. She’s played by Tavi Gevinson, a recent high-school graduate who’s made a name for herself on the internet as a fashionista and editor-in-chief of teen-oriented “Rookie.” Although she doesn’t quite bring the requisite depth to the role, the long first scene between her and Warren does a fine job of revealing her argumentative nature and the discomfort, tension, friction, and attempts at connection between two shy young people as they try to get to know each other as a prelude to a possible relationship. They begin to bond over Warren’s old records and assortment of collectibles (from action figures to a 1950’s toaster), which he’s brought with him in a suitcase in case he needs to sell them, though he doesn’t really want to.

Most significantly, though, Warren begins to come out of his shell, and we realize there is more to him than meets the eye; he really thinks about things and actually likes arguing with Jessica. The fact that he isn’t the total failure with women Dennis accused him of being (and that the thought of himself as being) gives him the courage to stand up for himself in his not-very-assertive way, even though he loses both the girl—her fault, in fact—and his precious stuff.

At the same time, the unexpected death of a fellow drug dealer (who overdoses) causes Dennis to have a mini meltdown and contemplate his own mortality, which leads to reflections on what’s likely to become of all of them in five or ten or fifteen years—a recurrent theme. But is Dennis for real or is he just indulging in more self-dramatization? That ambiguity is one of the things that makes Culkin’s portrayal fascinating and suggests that, as in Chekhov’s plays, we have to pay close attention to what’s happening beneath the surface.

That’s not hard to do at Steppenwolf, but I have no idea how “This Is Our Youth” will fly in a big Broadway house, and I’m admittedly worried. See it now if you can still get tickets; you’ll be glad to be able to say you did.