Monday, June 30, 2014

More Than Zero: Star-Studded 'This Is Our Youth' Satisfies at Steppenwolf, but Doesn't Quite Reach the Highest Highs -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

This Is Our Youth
a 1996 play by Kenneth Lonergan
directed by Anna Shapiro
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 27

I felt quite happy, and relatively lucky, to be able to purchase a $20 Day-of-Show ticket to see This Is Our Youth at Steppenwolf on Saturday (by calling the box office promptly at 11:00am).

The vast majority of people who see this production--whether in Steppenwolf's intimate Upstairs Theater or after it moves to Broadway's Cort Theater in mid-August--will undoubtedly have paid quite a bit more.

In terms of "regularly-priced" tickets, topping out at $82, the Steppenwolf run is seemingly sold out, and only one performance has seats listed on StubHub, starting at $148.

Though I was not previously aware of it, This Is Our Youth is a seemingly well-known play--the first of note by Kenneth Lonergan, who would subsequently write several screenplays I've enjoyed--that ran in New York in 1996 and for quite awhile in London. Actors who have performed in the work include Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen, Anna Paquin, Casey Affleck and other notable names.

In Chicago, and destined for Broadway, the three-member cast consists of Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson.

Cera and Culkin (the younger brother of Macaulay) have multiple film credits, including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which Cera plays the title character and Culkin his best friend and roommate.

Gevinson is a recent graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School who appeared last year in Enough Said with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Her bio also notes that she founded the popular Rookie Magazine website in 2011.

Photo credits on all: Michael Brosilow
Directing the impressive young cast is Anna Shapiro, who won a Tony Award--and a whole lot of other kudos--for Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which premiered at Steppenwolf. And set designer Todd Rosenthal, who also won a Tony for his work on that play, created the scenery at Steppenwolf, with the stage positioned between two banks of seats.

So although Steppenwolf typically stages stellar works with cast members you may see on screen led by highly-acclaimed directors, this kind of star-studded Broadway incubator production is a rather rare treat for the theater at 1650 N. Halsted.

Situated just 3 rows from the stage, and staying to partake in a worthwhile post-show discussion, my satisfaction--and appreciation for Steppenwolf offering such a generous discount deal when it obviously doesn't need to--was pretty much assured as soon as Cera and Culkin stepped onstage.

And with strong writing by Lonergan about affluent young Manhattanites in 1982, This Is Our Youth is certainly a worthwhile drama. Especially in paying just $20 for movie stars and Tony winners amid a sold-out run, I have nothing to complain about and am quite glad I got to see this show.

That said, if you don't already have tickets, try your darndest to avail yourself of Steppenwolf's "Twenty for $20" offer, but don't otherwise feel compelled to sell your first born to get to This Is Our Youth.

It is a very good, thought-provoking play that feels timeless in parts and dated in others, but only intermittently fantastic or essential.

All three characters are seemingly Jewish--Lonergan, whose mother was, makes some salty references to New York Jewish liberals--and college age though not enrolled (in real-life, Culkin is 31, Cera 26 and Gevinson 18).

Culkin plays Dennis, a narcissistic Alpha male who takes and deals hard drugs, lives in an apartment paid for by his "famous painter" father and bullies everyone he interacts with, including his dweeby, hangdog friend Warren, played by a closely-shorn Cera in keeping with his film persona.

The play opens with Warren arriving at Dennis' apartment after being thrown out by his dad, an affluent lingerie manufacturer. Along with a suitcase filled with collectible toys and record albums, Warren has a large wad of cash he took on his way out the door.

From there, This Is Our Youth is essentially a series of five dialogues among Dennis and Warren or Warren and Jessica.

Jessica, played terrifically by Gevinson who seems destined for considerable stardom, is pretty, insecure, opinionated and unsure, and I liked the play considerably more when she was on stage. Although overtly awkward young romance is pretty much Cera's stock-in-trade, it was here that Lonergan's script felt most authentic and universal.

At least to me. After I raised that opinion in the post-show discussion, another patron said he felt just the opposite, finding the relationship between Dennis and Warren much more compelling.

Certainly, there is much of interest with which This Is Our Youth presents audiences in 2014, from how different or similar things are now from the play's 1982 setting and 1996 debut--e.g. a landline phone factors in prominently--to the seemingly imbalanced friendship between Dennis and Warren to (as Chris Jones' noted in his Chicago Tribune review) the early '80s being the last bastion of the "player-dude," as the geeks would soon turn the tide, take over in Silicon Valley and get mega-rich.

Also quite central and directly voiced within the play is the question of whether Warren, Dennis and Jessica
of 1982 will be living entirely different lives 10, 20, 30 years hence--thus rendering their present predilections, personas and past-times largely immaterial--or if, as Warren suggests, "you basically get a set of characteristics and then they pretty much just develop in different ways."

My response to a post-show query about "Will they turn out OK?" was that it depends on one's definition of "OK."

Due to their families' affluence, their clear intelligence and Dennis' gift for hustling, I imagine all three characters will never want for material security, yet will remain uncomfortable--and perhaps, to varying degrees, unsatisfied--in their own shoes.

As it is, within the play, Dennis just seems like an ass. A very well-enacted ass, with deft work by Culkin, but an ass nonetheless.

And while Chris Jones might suggest that his brash type of entitled NYC rich-kid is an anachronism, if there was any truth to the recent TV show Gossip Girl, which depicted the same milieu, whether named Dennis Ziegler or Chuck Bass, the archetype--with due deference to the psychological causes and masked pains of such a churlish persona--doesn't seem all that distant, compelling or empathetic.

That Warren is friends with, and even worships, someone who so overtly mistreats him, is also worthy of consideration and discussion, but likewise not so foreign, whether from real-life or fictional drama.

Though Cera and Culkin are just about perfect in their roles--which they had previously played in an Australian production--I really think this This Is Our Youth could be much more interesting if the actors played against type and switched characters.

It would be fun to see Cera play a pompous jerk and Culkin the gawky misfit, and perhaps truer to perverting the existential riddle about our fates and personalities being predestined.

But even if This Is Our Youth feels a bit dated, there is much that remains relevant now and forever--including the espousing of the line "I'm restless"--even if the younger audiences the stars will likely attract can't recognize LPs, Trimline phones and life before Facebook, let alone appreciate references to The Honeymooners, Frank Zappa and Ernst Lubitsch.

Even if your youth isn't quite depicted--and many in the post-show talk seemed to suggest the characters were more akin to "people I grew up with"--this is a high-profile, high-quality production that is certainly worth seeing if you can.

And if you can't, watching Less Than Zero on Netflix just might satiate your desire to (re)discover the '80s through aimless youth with too much time, money and drugs on their hands.

A couple of trivial quibbles: 

- In the suitcase Warren shleps around are classic record albums, including one by Captain Beefheart. But I swear I saw a copy of The Kinks' State of Confusion, which though of titular relevance to the play and a personal favorite of mine, was released after This Is Our Youth's 1982 setting. 

- During the play, Warren makes reference to a baseball cap he owns that dates from the "opening of Weeghman Park in 1916." Though it is an early model Cubs cap and the team first played at Weeghman Park in 1916--it was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926--the venerable ballpark's 100th anniversary is currently being celebrated, as it opened in 1914 for original tenants, the Chicago Federals. I have no qualms with Lonergan's dramatic liberties, but couldn't help but notice. 


Anonymous said...

He doesnt say the Opening Day OF Weegman Park in 1916. He says Opening Day AT Weegman Park in 1916. Which there surely was one. And by 1916 the Cubs were in fact playing at Weegman. Not to nitpick your review, but you brought it up.

Seth Arkin said...

Nice clarification, thanks.