'This Is Our Youth': Lonergan's Lost Kids in Lonely Anguish

In this Thurs., Sept. 11, 2014 photo provided by Starpix, stars of the Broadway production “This is Our Youth,” from left
In this Thurs., Sept. 11, 2014 photo provided by Starpix, stars of the Broadway production “This is Our Youth,” from left, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson and Kieran Culkin, stop for a photo at the premiere’s after party in New York. (AP Photo/Starpix, Amanda Schwab)

Early in Kenneth Lonergan's smart, funny, and poignant This Is Our Youth, now in a riveting and rowdy revival at Broadway's Cort Theater, Warren Straub confesses to his childhood friend and pot dealer Dennis Ziegler: "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go." It could be the cri de coeur for every generation of late adolescents.

Brilliantly acted by Michael Cera as Warren, Kieran Culkin as Dennis, and Tavi Gevinson, as Jessica Goldman, the object of Warren's fantasies, and flawlessly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, Lonergan's wonderfully crafted 1996 play captures all the agony and the ecstasy, but mostly the agony, of post-pubescent youth.

Lonergan couldn't ask for a better cast. Cera is simply superb as Warren, a lost soul carrying a secret grief with awkward clumsiness but a pure heart. With his arms stiff at his side as though he doesn't quite know what to do with them, Cera is at once eager and shy and sad, a kid you instinctively want to put your arm around and assure him that everything will be all right.

Culkin is excellent as Dennis, another confused teenager whose persona as a big-shot drug dealer living on his own is simply a façade behind which he hides a multitude of insecurities. And Gevinson is a discovery as Jessica, unsurprisingly more mature than either of the guys but vulnerable as well, wanting only someone to like her for herself.

Set in 1982 in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, This Is Our Youth tracks roughly 12 hours of the lives of Warren, Dennis, and Jessica as they confront the grim reality of a life in which they are unwanted by parents from whom they've never heard an encouraging word, and whose only escape hatch seems to be in smoking copious amounts of marijuana.

It is just after midnight in late March when Warren rings the buzzer on Dennis's apartment. His dad has kicked him out of their apartment, and Warren has packed up his collection of vintage toys, record albums, and a toaster in a suitcase, and helped himself to $15,000 in cash he found in his dad's briefcase.

At first, Dennis doesn't want to let Warren stay. The assumption is that the money Warren took was intended for one of the underworld characters with whom Warren's father does business and that his dad's gun-toting chauffeur will come looking for it. They devise a scheme to return the money before his father finds it missing, but it involves a convoluted drug deal and selling Warren's cherished collectibles. "Proceeds of an unhappy childhood," Warren says, agreeing to part with them.

"This crowns your career as an idiot," shouts Dennis, who never misses an opportunity to belittle Warren, when he learns Warren has stolen the money from his dad. "What's going to happen to you?"

"What's going to happen to anybody?" Warren replies. "Who cares?"

That refrain -- "Who cares?" and its companion mantra, "It doesn't matter" -- are about the only defenses either young man can mount against a world they regard as alien and uninterested in them.

But sparks of hope emerge. For Warren, who according to Dennis hasn't had a date since the ninth grade, it comes with the possibility that Jessica, a girl he's attracted to, may come over to the apartment with Dennis's girlfriend. For Dennis, who habitually verbally abuses his girlfriend over the phone, it is when he sends Warren into the bathroom so that he can apologize to her and beg her forgiveness in private.

When Jessica arrives, Warren's courtship is achingly hilarious. "How many cigarettes do you smoke on an average day?" he asks, trying to make small-talk conversation. They agree on nothing, talk at the same time, then lapse into long silences.

But Jessica takes an interest in Warren's collection of toys and albums, and they dance to one of the records -- Jessica bouncing all over the place while Warren sort of shuffles his feet and waves his arms -- then slow dance to another. It is an endearingly tender and funny scene with Cera and Gevinson capturing both the exuberance and the awkwardness of youth.

Revelations begin to come out. A family tragedy haunts Warren's past and his most prized possession is a baseball cap his grandfather gave him. When they meet the next morning, Jessica asks Warren at one point to explain himself. "I'm not talking about anything," Warren replies. "It's just something to say."

In their opening volley of conversation, Jessica says she believes that people change when they grow up and that one day they will look back on their time as pot-smoking, burned-out rebels with nostalgia. Warren is less optimistic. He thinks that people don't change that much as they get older. The truth, of course, is that some do and some don't. For Lonergan's trio of hapless teenagers, one may hope that Jessica is right.

This Is Our Youth is a timeless play that should be seen by every parent, grandparent, and troubled teen.

This is Our Youth