Monday, December 15, 2014

Pas de Trois: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in This is Our Youth (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

As the late adolescents in the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hander This Is Our Youth, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson are improbably loose and funny together, like performers with strikingly disparate styles who’ve been working together so long they can anticipate each other’s moves. It’s slacker vaudeville. This play, which was Lonergan’s breakthrough, was first produced off Broadway in 1996, with Mark Ruffalo, Josh Hamilton and Missy Yager; it had a limited run but received so much praise that it reopened two years later (with Mark Rosenthal stepping in for Hamilton), and Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen and Anna Paquin picked up the roles when it was mounted in the West End in 2002. This new production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with an acute sensitivity to the play’s complex tonality, is the first time the play has been seen on Broadway. Though the Sunday evening performance I attended was full, overall it hasn’t been drawing crowds – and it deserves to sell out. I saw a tape of the 1998 revival, and though Ruffalo was very funny as the drug-addled misfit Warren, I ran out of patience for the characters. You could see Lonergan’s talent for dialogue and for rendering the milieu, upper-middle-class Manhattan Jewish teens in the early 1980s, very bright but derailed, with highly successful career-focused parents with whom they have brittle, sometimes ugly relationships. (Lonergan’s superb 2011 film Margaret has the same geographical and social setting, though it takes place three decades later.) But the play felt insubstantial. Shapiro’s production is both funnier and more poignant – and it gives a much sharper sense of how good the script is.

Culkin plays Dennis, whose ailing celebrity-painter father has agreed to bankroll his post-high school party-boy lifestyle, paying for a one-room apartment because (according to Denny) it means that he doesn’t have to live with him. It’s not clear how much of an allowance Denny gets from his parents; whatever it is, he supplements it by selling drugs. Cera’s Warren lives with his father, who is physically abusive and whom he loathes. (His remarried mother lives in Florida.) When the play begins, he’s just stolen $15,000 from his dad – as a way, it seems, of attracting his attention as well as making a statement. It’s almost a reflex gesture, like a discomfited pet’s soiling the rug. He arrives at Denny’s while he and his girl friend Valerie are having a spat that Lonergan renders entirely in abrupt, hilarious one-way phone conversations. We never meet Valerie; Gevinson plays Jessica, her best pal, who gets invited along to the evening’s drug-centered festivities as an unofficial date for Warren. But the two couples never connect, and Jessica winds up spending the night with Warren while Denny and Valerie are off together, reconciling and then quarreling afresh.

The friendship between Warren and Denny seems like it can’t have changed much since they were ten. (That’s a guess; we aren’t told exactly how long they’ve known each other.) They still act like kids on a play date who get bored and restless in the middle. Denny is the cool kid whose company Warren must have felt privileged to share, so he’s put up with being Denny’s punching bag – psychologically as well as physically. (Denny doesn’t hurt Warren; it’s enough for him, apparently, that both young men always know that he could kick Warren’s ass if he wanted to.) When Warren returns from his romantic night with Jessica and tells him he splurged on a night in the Vanderbilt Suite at the Plaza, Denny responds, typically, by saying that the Plaza is a dump and he should have booked a room at the Pierre. Denny thinks he’s conveying how pleased he is for his friend, but all we can hear his need to put Warren down – and after all this time, and now that he’s lucked into the chance at a girl friend, and someone he cares about (Denny, of course, has never had to worry in that department), Warren finally hears it too. He calls Denny on it, suggesting that he’s not in his corner, and Denny, who is so used to lording it over Warren, is stunned at the suggestion. His casual insults (he’s forever telling Warren how stupid he is), he insists, are just the way they talk to each other. The truth is, they’re the way he talks to Warren.

Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)
Denny’s slick, though when he talks about the fine points of different varieties of weed on the phone to another dealer, he’s too smart to be unaware that he’s playing a role. But it’s a role he’s comfortable with; he grooves on it. Culkin’s vocal rhythms are comically skewed, and he dips down into his voice to locate a scratchy growl that sounds as if he’s taking a fast corner on concrete. Culkin is an amazingly free physical actor; the mock-acrobatic dance he throws himself into when he puts a soul ballad on the stereo is the mark of a young man who’s completely at ease in his own skin. (Only later, when he learns that a druggie he and Valerie did speedballs with the night before didn’t wake up, does he seem distressed; the news sends him into a kinetic talking jag.) By contrast, Cera has an off-kilter gawky presence, and he always looks a little terrified, a little weirded out, and permanently injured, as if he’d been pummeled by bullies after school his whole life. (The fact that his father beats him up, of course, figures into this scenario.) When Warren gets excited about some daring new idea – like joining Denny for speedballs – his entire stick body bends over at a forty-five-degree angle and seems to propel itself halfway into the air.

When Tavi Gevinson (she played the best friend of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the movie Enough Said) comes onstage halfway through act one, her Jessica and Cera’s Warren go into maybe the oddest mating dance you’ve ever seen. Jessica is studying at the Fashion Institute and Warren has dropped out of Oberlin after his freshman year, and their political arguments sound like the sort of thing you’d hear from bright, nervous, intensely self-conscious prep-school graduates. (Lonergan has given them some very funny lines.) The fact that Warren’s alone in a room with a girl he finds attractive is almost too much for him; he can’t shut up, and though she’s attracted to him and she’s doing her damnedest to be cool, she puts too much stock in her opinions – they’re like placards she armors herself with – not to get pissed when he runs roughshod over them. Gevinson’s pitch wavers and it’s a little high, as if she were skidding on the top of her voice and unable to pull herself down. Her Jessica is just as scared as Warren, so when she leaps at the opportunity of something between them, you can see the frozen gaze in her eyes just before she does. A nifty touch: she’s only relaxed when she dances. She’s like a confident jack-in-the-box, and when he joins her he looks blissed out, though he doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea what the hell his body is doing, especially his arms. This punk pas de deux by disaffected nerds is the highlight of the show. Then Warren puts on a slow song and when they move together, they’re like a couple in a junior-high ballroom dance class. Their sweetness together, their Looney Tunes match-up, is one of the play’s surprises. In the second act they have an amazing scene, full of split-second tonal shifts, where she comes by Denny’s apartment (where Warren is staying) to break a brunch date and she winds up storming out. It’s clear neither of them has a clue whether they’ve just broken up, or even if they actually had anything they could break up from.

In the Ruffalo part, Cera is a revelation. I’ve never cared for him in movies, where he always seems to be playing the same unbearably earnest character, but this is an authentic piece of acting; you can see him turn into an adult before your eyes. He needs his fellow actors, though; he’s shaky on his own. He can switch from comedy to drama in the first-act scene with Gevinson where Jessica asks Warren about his sister, who was murdered some years ago by her boy friend, but in the middle of act two, when Warren has to talk to his father on the phone, Cera goes somber and flat. And his performance drifts into a kind of dead zone in the last fifteen or twenty minutes, though I think that Lonergan is partly to blame. He didn’t find a finish for the play. He wrote it as a coming-of-age story for Warren, but though he’s a different character by the end, the dialogue between him and Denny seems to deny that anything’s changed. I think Lonergan just ran out of ideas. By the time he got to Margaret, another teenage rite-of-passage narrative, he’d figured out how to complete the protagonist’s arc. But because Shapiro (who also directed last season’s beautiful, underrated Of Mice and Men) and her actors handle This Is Our Youth so skillfully, it’s now clear to me that Lonergan was well on his way a decade and a half before he turned out Margaret. The admiration I felt walking out of the theatre was as much for the playwright as for the cast and the director.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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