Chicago Theatre Review
Are the Kids All Right?
This is Our Youth – Steppenwolf
The problems that kids experience seem to stem from either poor parenting and guidance or they involve whatever the young people have brought upon themselves. Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play, which has been produced internationally, is Broadway bound for a Fall production, and is directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member and Tony Award-winner, Anna D. Shapiro. Set in 1982 in Dennis Ziegler’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, this coming of age story tells of three post-adolescents searching for their own identity during the Reagan Era.
One late night 19-year-old Warren (Michael Cera) shows up unannounced at his friend Dennis’ apartment. He’s been kicked out of his own home by his wealthy, abusive, mob-affiliated father. In retaliation Warren has stolen $15,000 of his dad’s money and needs a place to crash while he tries to figure out what to do next and where to go from here. Dennis (Kieran Culkin), Warren’s only friend, is surprisingly cruel and reluctant to let him stay, yelling “Nobody can stand to have you around because you’re such an annoying loudmouthed little creep, and now you’re some kind of fugitive from justice? What is gonna happen to you, man?” Lonergan’s play is Warren’s long night’s journey into adulthood as he tries to determine his future.
The night becomes a blur of marijuana haze, putdowns and planning uses for the stolen money and/or how to borrow from the stash, have a good time and still somehow replace it before Warren’s father discovers it missing. Enter into this Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), a pretty, intelligent young girl whom the loveless Warren had met once and found desirable. At first Jessica finds the young man’s awkward advances off-putting, but once Warren’s initial nervousness dissipates the teenager sees something redeeming beneath the boy’s unrefined surface. Of course, Warren’s money speaks loudly as the young man attempts to buy Jessica’s affection by offering to fund an evening for two at the Plaza.
The next morning some life-changing events take place, including the death of Dennis’ young business acquaintance, Jessica’s arrival with disappointing news and Warren’s father finally tracking him down. In those early hours Warren emerges from his self-induced fog, finally able to assess his situation, the people around him and make some decisions that forecast his voyage toward adulthood and responsibility.
Michael Cera, known primarily for his roles in TV’s “Arrested Development,” and on film in “Juno” and “Superbad,” brings his signature hangdog, clueless innocence to the role of Warren. It works so well for this character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Cera’s Warren is sad and pathetic and, although the character appears frustrating in his inability to make decisions or speak except when spoken to, he makes his character an often-humorous punching bag for everyone else’s anger and impatience. Audiences, however, will cheer for Warren’s emergence by the end of the play.
Kieran Culkin, whose film credits are numerous (including “Scott Pilgrim v.s. the World,” with Cera, and cult favorite “Igby Goes Down”) has appeared on stage more frequently than his costars, including starring in Lonergan’s “The Starry Messenger.” His Dennis is a hotheaded, egotistical drug dealer, quick to blame others for his shortcomings and mistakes. His friendship with Warren is understandable only because it makes Dennis feel smart and more important. Culkin is sharp, eloquent and knows how to land an insult and a punchline. He can be menacing and likable, and although he seems genuinely affected by a fellow drug dealer’s death, it’s Warren’s tirade near the end of the play that hits him hardest.
The multitalented Tavi Gevinson, at the ripe old age of 18, has more variety in her resume than most 40-year-olds. An astounding artist who began treading the boards as a precociously talented child actress in suburban productions, Ms. Gevinson is the noted writer and editor-in-chief for “Rookie,” a website for teenage girls. She’s also written for the Chicago Tribune and ELLE Magazine and guest-starred on television’s “Parenthood.” As Jessica, the young actress plays a young college student studying fashion design. Her Jessica is confident, smart, witty and able to carry on a conversation while secure with her own femininity. Ms. Gevinson is a full package of brains, beauty and skill, demonstrating the kind of theatrical talent that Broadway audiences will soon be enjoying and celebrating.
Director Anna D. Shapiro keeps her production intimate yet providing the linear expanse necessary for the actors to ply their talents and tell their story in Todd Rosenthal’s sparse setting. She brings these aimless, vacuous, somewhat emotionally comatose characters to full life with a spirit and passion that feels authentic. Lonergan’s elevated, almost poetic language sounds natural and, although the play is primarily character-driven, Ms. Shapiro creates an impressive evening of theatre in which the story evolves from three interesting young people’s relationship, and the result is pure entertainment.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by Steppenwolf Theatre June 10-July 27 in their Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.