Review: This Is Our Youth (Steppenwolf Theatre)

| June 21, 2014
Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera star in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        
      
This Is Our Youth

Written by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Anne D. Shapiro  
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru June 27  |  tickets: $20-$82   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Jaunty transitions, awkward pacing stymie Reagan-era coming-of-age tale 

     

Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosillow)

    
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
    
This Is Our Youth

Review by Oliver Sava 

As the house lights go down at the start of Steppenwolf’s starry, Broadway-bound revival of Kenneth Lonergan‘s 1996 exploration of young adult angst in the ’80s, somber piano music plays to suggest that this is going to be a very high-brow, sophisticated production about a drug dealer and his trying to fill a weekend with drugs and sex. That dreary music is indicative of the energy that flows through Anna D. Shapiro‘s staging of the play, which moves at a sluggish pace and features dull performances that fail to capture the intensity of these characters’ emotions.

Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)Starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin—who previously played roommates in Edgar Wright’s comic book film adaptation Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World before appearing in Sydney Opera House’s production of This Is Our Youth in 2012—and rising star Tavi Gevinson—actress, writer, and editor-in-chief of Rookie Magazine—this revival puts a lot of talent on stage, but the actors never make the characters feel like more than words on a page. The dialogue plods along with too much air between lines, and the actors have trouble navigating the complex beats of Lonergan’s extensive monologues, giving voice to the material but not truly living in it.

Warren (Cera) has just run away from home with $15,000 of his father’s money and seeks refuge in the home of his weed dealer Dennis (Culkin), who freaks out before quickly working out a plan to turn a profit while still returning the cash. They’ll use the money to buy some cocaine that they can then sell at an inflated price, a strategy that could possibly work if Warren wasn’t a total screw-up. The character is a deeply troubled man-child that has let past tragedy define his present, but Cera’s performance fails to evoke the desperation that pushes the young man to flee from his home.

Cera has built a career on playing awkward characters, and that’s certainly Warren’s defining trait. His physicality is especially uncomfortable, and not in a "what a smart character choice" way; it’s rare to see a professional production where a performer is so visibly unsure of what to do with his hands that it pulls focus from the dialogue. More detrimentally, he has difficulty reaching the emotional depths of the script, making it difficult to understand why we should sympathize with Warren.

Composed of two long scenes filled with expository monologues, Lonergan’s play needs to move swiftly or it becomes a whiny bore. What is endearing and engaging about these characters is their passion, because their problems as privileged white kids don’t quite captivate presently the way they might have back in the Clinton era. That passion is largely absent from Shapiro’s production. A recurring theme is the loss of the carefree excitement of youth as people age, and the production needs to have that enthusiasm or it falls apart.

Michael Cera in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow) Kieran Culkin in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow) Tavi Gevinson in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Gevinson gives a performance that is quite reminiscent of a young Scarlet Johansson, and, while she blossoms in small, intimate moments, she doesn’t go far enough when Jessica stops being polite and starts getting real. While her scenes with Cera lack any real sexual tension, they do establish a solid friendship between the characters; their relationship gains some substance over the course of the play, but it’s a pond where there should be an ocean.

Culkin’s Dennis lacks the threatening edge that gives him the authority to talk to people like dogs, and the emotional rollercoaster Dennis goes through in the second act is a stuttering series of personal revelations that never gains the appropriate momentum. Transitions are the biggest problem with the production; moments don’t flow into each other, creating a static atmosphere that doesn’t jive with the script.

This Is Our Youth is a play that is often used to test the stage skill of screen actors (notable cast members include Matt Damon, Colin Hanks, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anna Paquin), but the performers of Steppenwolf’s revival fail to make the grade.

  
Rating: ½
  
   

This Is Our Youth continues through July 27th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted  (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$82, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org(Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)

Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 


     

artists

cast

Michael Cera (Warren), Kieran Culkin (Dennis), Tavi Gevinson (Jessica), Talley Beth Gale, Joe Lino, Taylor Del Vecchio (understudies)

behind the scenes

Anna D. Shapiro (director), Todd Rosenthal (set design), Ann Roth (costume design), Brian MacDevitt (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design), Rostam Batmanglij (original composition), Thomas Schall (fight choreography), Cecilie O’Reilly (vocal coach), Bernie Telsey (casting director), Cambra Overend (stage manager), Kevin G. Dwyer (asst. stage manager), Jonathan Berry (asst. director), Gina Hayes, Jerrell Henderson (directing interns), Benjamin Travis (asst. lighting design), Jane Chan (lighting assistant), Karen Thompson (light board operator), Andrew Rovner (sound board operator), Ravenswood Scenic (set construction), Desiree Arnold, Jamie Karas, Andrew Lex (props overhire), Martha Lavey (artistic director), David Hawkanson (executive director), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)Kieran Culkin in Steppenwolf Theatre's "This Is Our Youth" by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Anne D. Shapiro. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Broadway-bound, Oliver Sava, Steppenwolf

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