It’s hard to know quite what to make of a play like This Is Our Youth, Area Stage’s current theatrical offering. First staged in 1996 and set in 1982, it’s a play that is at once very much of its time, with references to the Reagan White House and a conspicuous lack of cell service, yet very much universal in its portrayal of the aching aimlessness of uncertain youth, a limited scope that is perhaps both a strength and a limitation.
The play takes place entirely in character Dennis’s uncultivated Upper West Side apartment, the frameless mattress found on his floor providing an instant hint to the 21 year old drug dealer’s somewhat stunted transition into adulthood. The action gets underway when Dennis’s routine pot-smoking session is interrupted by the arrival of Warren, an even more wayward peer who has shown up in search of a place to stay and toting a full $15,000 dollars, which it is eventually revealed that he pilfered from his father.
How, when, and if the two should spend or return the money comprises most of the rest of the play’s plot, such that it truly has one, with the obviously privileged nature of the characters and the sense that Warren is unlikely to face any serious retribution giving a certain sense of stakeslessness to it all; Warren’s father is a wealthy lingerie tycoon, and Dennis’s a famous painter well-off of enough to finance his bike-messenger-burnout son’s apartment without complaint.
After indulging in a little more weed, Warren and Dennis eventually land on the bright idea of investing some of the cash in a sizable cocaine stash, most of which Dennis will sell for a profit and some of which the two will keep for themselves in the hopes of luring some female company over to partake.
Photographer: Giancarlo Rodaz
The arrival of Warren’s long time crush Jessica adds an element of will-they-or-won’t-they to the proceedings, and while a genuine tragedy does eventually occur in the play’s orbit, it’s distant enough from the character’s lives that there’s a sense in which one character’s over the top reaction almost felt like Lonergan reaching too hard for emotional resonance, as did some of the characters’ lengthier monologues detailing aspects of their family history.
In the play’s here-and-now, though, the worst thing that happens is the dropping of some drugs, the fizzling of a flirtation, and the occasional ebb and flow of the continual tension between Dennis and Warren, the main question in play being just how much psychological abuse the latter will be willing to put up with.
Photographer: Giancarlo Rodaz
The other genuine tragedy referenced in the play is one that took place in Warren’s past, which, along with his amusing eccentricities, subtle intelligence, and attitude of naive benevolence, make him the most likable character amidst the relatively unsympathetic bunch—Dennis’s unbridled sado-narcissism quickly takes him out of contention and, and, to me at least, Jessica’s ambivalence to Warren’s advances ultimately felt more like the result of a sought-after girl’s self-importance than of her genuine skittishness about the situation.
And perhaps my own ambivalence to This Is Our Youth has something to do with a struggle to find much of a “why” in it all, though perhaps the idea of a character study focusing on the apathy and ennui of disaffected youth was a fresher one when the play initially premiered. Though Warren at least acknowledges the way the characters’ privileged upbringing spares them from any real consequences of their cash-seeking shenanigans while less fortunate young people who take the same liberties are wont to destroy their lives, it still begs the question of what makes this story of stagnancy worth the telling as opposed to one where there is more on the table for the characters to lose or something pushing them towards maturity or growth.
But, these broader implications aside, This Is Our Youth’s script is one that delivers quite a lot of slice-of-life laugh lines as the characters stumble through their situation’s mild absurdity, as well as one that gets us to connect enough with at least Warren that we root for his romantic triumph with Jessica and wince as he gets wounded by some of Dennis’s cruelest barbs, which makes the play’s journey an engaging one despite the lack of any real destination. Area Stage’s production of this low-key classic is also a well put-together and consistently entertaining one; occasional moments of awkward blocking fail to get in the way of a well-paced and dynamic progression of dialogue and a charismatic, likable cast.
Teddy Calvin’s hangdog demeanor well-suited the awkward Warren, though the whininess of his tone occasionally got grating during the character’s longer speeches, and Harley Muir makes for a convincingly conflicted and awkwardly charming Jessica. As Dennis, Luke Surretsky was probably the actor most responsible for the show’s comedic success with his keyed-up bravado and erratic off-the-wall energy, though I’m not sure if he succeeded in conveying the appropriate emotional undertones in the play’s sparser dramatic moments.