Not my youth

This past weekend, I saw a matinee preview of “This is Our Youth” on Broadway, starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson. It was written by Kenneth Lonergan, whose work I was introduced to with a special screening of the director’s cut of “Margaret” — a complex three-hour multi-character study which he wrote and directed. What I enjoyed about “Margaret” was that all the characters had mixed motivations, all had virtues and flaws, and even when someone was unlikeable they felt real. Also, he really captured NYC in its various neighborhoods and guises. “Youth” was directed by Anna Shapiro, who also directed Steppenwolf monsters like “August:Osage County” and “Motherfucker with the Hat.” Actors appearing in previous productions include Josh Hamilton (Parker Posey’s twin brother in House of Yes, which I’ve seen probably five times) and Mark Ruffalo (who’s usually marvelous), who initiated the roles; not to mention: Hayden Christensen, Matt Damon, Colin Hanks, Chris Klein, Jake Gyllenhaal, Casey Affleck, and Freddie Prinze Jr., Anna Paquin, Summer Phoenix and Alison Lohman. Impressive list and surely they collectively must have pretty good taste, yeah?

So going in, my expectations for excellence on all fronts were really quite high. I guess that’s always dangerous, isn’t it?

And therefore I was deeply disappointed to find myself in the middle of a 2.5-hour “rich young white people (Manhattanite edition) think they have problems” story. These three fools have barely the vaguest hints of self-awareness or world awareness.

Character 1: The nerdy, passively self-destructive Warren, who can’t connect with women and has spent years looking up to an alpha type guy who talks down to him constantly… mostly because he fucks everything up. He finally gets in the same room with a girl he likes and in a desperate move to impress her, takes her to a $1,000 suite at the Plaza, which he pays for with a portion of cash he stole from his father. You know, typical young courtship move.

Oh and Warren’s backstory with his dad: Dad’s an angry, highly critical self-made one-percenter who lets Warren’s shiftless, pot-smoking, 19-year-old ass live at home and points out that the only difference between him and “other” kids in jail is dad’s money. Maybe unlikeable and cruel, but hardly wrong. Plus, if my teenage daughter was murdered 10 years ago by an abusive boyfriend I never approved of, maybe I’d be persistently angry and disappointed my younger son has done nothing worthwhile too. So here I am sympathizing with an unseen middle-aged garment industry tycoon of dubious business practices and legal standing. Thanks, Lonergan.

Character 2: Former high school alpha male type Dennis. Dennis has a wealthy artist father dad and a resentful mother (no idea why mom is so toxic, but she doesn’t get explained. It’s just taken at face value that she’s a mean bitch. Thanks again, Lonergan.) Throughout the show, Dennis repeatedly resists helping Warren, then comes up with multiple plans to save his ass, each of which Warren fucks up royally. Dennis is one of those “brutally honest whether you can take it or not” types, which normally I see as a moral weakness… brutal is never necessary for honesty. But when he points out that Warren is a self-destructive, whiny nerd who cultivates negative attention, whom no one in their crowd genuinely likes or wants to hang around with — and that’s why he can’t find anyplace to stay after his father (supposedly) throws him out in a fit of pique — nothing he says seems *pointlessly* cruel. It’s overstatement, and it’s meant to be hurtful, but it’s excusable because in my opinion, someone should give this child a wakeup call.

Being a punching bag for his father and then being sent out into the world was not an epiphany for Warren … instead it inspires a dangerous and childish response: stealing $15K cash (in 1982 dollars) from his dad’s bedroom and “running away” to a school chum’s apartment maybe a few blocks away. This action combo is at least 10 kinds of stupid — nothing safe or legal is done with briefcases full of money — and Dennis is right to call him out on it, explicitly and repeatedly, and to be scared that Warren has brought this problem directly into his home. So again, I found myself strongly sympathizing with a loud, snotty, entitled, “attack first” style class-A bully … who was intelligent, connected, active, sensitive, and savvy. We’re supposed to see Dennis as an over-the-hill rageaholic who doesn’t know that his cool-kid rule is coming to an end. I see him as completely sane, though on a hair-trigger.

Character 3: Jessica. I truly believed in my heart that Lonergan was going to write a female character who stood on her own as the third leg of this cast. Nope. Jessica exists as a trophy for Warren. She has thoughts but spends most of the time issuing mixed signals, speechifying inconsistently, and being confused by herself and others. It could be done more interestingly, with some subtext, but there’s not a lot of subtext in Tavi Gevinson’s portrayal. Which brings me away from the script and to the acting. I assume that since this was workshopped and played in Chicago, that Gevinson’s performance has a thumbs-up from the director and producers, but sorry, not from me. She is very smart and a brilliant writer and curator. I respect her. BUT she just graduated from high school 2 months ago and boy does it show. College isn’t for everyone, nor are acting classes always necessary… but sometimes training helps.  To wit: Culkin is *great* and Cera is pretty good — I’m not sure whether the annoying bits are Warren’s tics or Cera’s choices and I’m willing to let Warren take the blame. But I didn’t like Jessica and I didn’t find Gevinson compelling, so Gevinson gets the raspberry.
Lonergan says he loves and respects teenagers. Maybe he does. Maybe I don’t. I dunno. But I did not appreciate this play.And I really don’t get the widespread acclaim and the numerous revivals… the only explanation I can discern is that former white upper-middle-class shiftless druggie fuckups grow up to be directors, producers and actors and like to see these stories told repeatedly with a gloss of profundity. Meanwhile, there are lot of us yearning for something new, from someone who has overcome actual problems.If all that’s too critical, here’s some fawning for balance:

Chicago Theater Review: ‘This Is Our Youth’ Starring Michael Cera


About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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