Was This Our Youth?


What struck me first about Anna D. Shapiro’s revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 off-Broadway play, This is Our Youth, was how young the audience was. What I imagined to be a topical time capsule of the early 1980s, reflecting the cocaine-addled Reagan era of wealth and self-indulgence, is in fact a poignant take on the confusing transition from youth to adulthood, a subject as germane now as it was two decades ago.

The play begins with the surly Dennis Ziegler (Kieran Culkin), who seems annoyed by everything that takes him away from smoking pot and watching television. Even when motionless, Culkin has the kinetic energy of a Jack Russell Terrier; he gives a nuanced performance of someone both narcissistic and still surprisingly likeable. His claustrophobic apartment (set designed by Todd Rosenthal) perfectly appointed with flimsy shelving, bland cabinets and a phone with an actual cord, made me nostalgic for my first Manhattan apartment.

Soon Warren (Michael Cera) arrives with money he stole from his father. Like Culkin, Cera possesses a nervous vitality, though his manifests itself in long limbs unsettled on a body that hasn’t grown into itself. Known for his roles in Arrested Development, Juno and Superbad, Cera has become the everyman of self-conscious teens: smart, funny, self-deprecating and ultimately lost. Here he is brilliantly gawky, shifting and pulling at his T-shirt like a 12-year-old girl in front of a crush. Cera—tripping about the stage, knocking over a shelf with a football, spilling cocaine on the floor—has the comic timing of a silent film star, and his pent-up ene­rgy and confusion with the world is palpable.

As the play progresses, Daniel and Warren, now in a pot-induced haze, concoct a plan to buy cocaine and resell it to pay back Warren’s father. This subplot is as cliché as an ankle sprain in a scary movie, but under Shapiro’s masterful direction I was riveted enough to wonder, Why is Warren putting up with Dennis’s bullying? In the rare moments when Warren does call out Dennis on his cruelty, the stage becomes electrified with teen angst and insecurity.

The first act ends with a visit from Julie, a loud-mouthed fashion student and the object of Warren’s affection. Much has been said of Tavi Gevinson, the 18-year-old prodigy who came into the national spotlight as a 12-year-old fashion blogger. This is Our Youth is Gevinson’s Broadway debut and she has quickly become a darling of the press, garnishing praise from The New Yorker—“Gevinson…is a star being shaped by her own will to be seen and heard”—and has even graced the cover of New York Magazine.

I felt alone in my disappointment in Gevinson as an actress. While she is indeed beautiful and could beat anyone at a staring contest, her nasal, monotone voice made me cringe. Still, like Cera, her clumsiness had an identifiable charm, especially as she dances with abandon. She is also assigned some of the best dialogue in the play. “It just makes you realize that there’s just these huge swaths of time in your life that didn’t register at all, and that you might just as well have been dead during them for all the difference they make to you now.”

By intermission, I was shocked by how many young people in the crowd hated the show, a few even leaving before the second act. This was confirmed by my online search. While most of the reviews are positive, they are almost exclusively written by people my age. (No. I’m not telling.) Startling to me were the comments by young people responding to the reviews. “I’ve never disagreed with a review so much…. The story was weak; the actors lacked intention and seemed to move only because the director told them to. Boring, at best.”

While the second act, with its predictable plotline of losing the money and girl, was not as strong as the first, I wondered if the play’s understated simplicity disappointed its young audience. In contrast to the multiple plotlines of serial cable shows, the wow factor is admittedly low, but perhaps there is something much deeper going on. For me, the play’s emotional undertow of feeling disenfranchised and utterly lost felt pretty timeless. Lonergan’s characters hold a mirror to disillusioned youth everywhere, if the audience would only sit still long enough to look.

Photo courtesy of Brigitte Lancombe