After seeing the Broadway debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 black comedy, This Is Our Youth, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, thankful that this was not my youth — although it could have been, since I’m the same age as two of the three characters and grew up in New York as well at the exact same time. It’s a lot funnier watching the antics onstage than having actually lived that life. It’s March 1982, and nineteen-year-old Warren Straub (Michael Cera) has arrived at the Upper West Side pad of his friend and drug dealer, twenty-one-year-old Dennis Ziegler (Kieran Culkin), with a suitcase stuffed with valuable collectible toys and records and fifteen grand in cash he stole from his abusive father. Dennis and Warren have an intense love-hate relationship, as the supposedly cool and calm dealer constantly insults his always nervous, twitchy buddy, who appears to suffer from ADHD and often thrusts his hands into his pockets to keep them from doing something strange as he tramps around the stage. “What kind of life do you lead?” Dennis says early on. “You live with your father — a psycho. . . . Nobody can stand to have you around because you’re such an annoying loudmouthed little creep, and now you’re like some kind of fugitive from justice? What is gonna happen to you, man?” Warren, who has a unique philosophical view of the world, replies, “What’s gonna happen to anybody? Who cares?” Dennis’s never-seen girlfriend, Valerie, and her friend, the fashionable Jessica Goldman (current It Girl Tavi Gevinson), are on their way over, so Dennis and Warren come up with a plan to lavish some of the stolen money — which Dennis insists Warren return to his father — on the two women, then make it back by reselling some coke. But nothing seems to go quite right for these two luckless losers.
Originally produced by the New Group in 1996 with Josh Hamilton as Dennis, Mark Ruffalo as Warren, and Missy Yager as Jessica (later versions have featured such young stars as Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hayden Christensen, Freddie Prinze Jr., Anna Paquin, Summer Phoenix, Heather Burns, and Alison Lohman), This Is Our Youth is a searing comic portrait of three college-age kids trying to find their place in a not-so-warm-and-cozy world. Culkin (subUrbia, Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger) plays the sleazy but lovable Dennis with broad strokes, channeling Robert Downey Jr. from Less Than Zero; in fact, This Is Our Youth is sort of an extremely stripped-down, more low rent East Coast version of the 1987 film based on Bret Easton Ellis’s bestselling novel, with smart, razor-sharp, free-wheeling dialogue from Lonergan (The Waverly Gallery, You Can Count on Me). Gevinson, the teen powerhouse behind Rookie magazine, starts off a bit mannered before settling into her character, an FIT student who is (wisely) suspicious of Warren and is the only one of the three who actually cares about her family. But Cera steals the show in a bravura performance as the unpredictable Warren, imbuing him with a fidgety apprehension and a tense, jittery anxiety that is mesmerizing. He’s so wound up, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to have a conversation with him. “So how you doing, Jessica?” he asks when she shows up at Dennis’s apartment. “You’re looking very automated tonight,” to which Jessica replies, “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Anna D. Shapiro (Domesticated, August: Osage County) directs this Steppenwolf production with a controlled recklessness where anything can happen on Todd Rosenthal’s (Of Mice and Men, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) spectacular set, a walk-up studio surrounded by an apartment complex so realistic you’ll wonder why you’ve never noticed it in the Theater District before. Letting out another sigh of relief, I can again confirm that I am intensely glad to have experienced This Is Our Youth as an onstage drama instead of ever having to live this crazy kind of life myself.