Magazine article American Theatre

Rites of Passage

Magazine article American Theatre

Rites of Passage

Article excerpt

This Is Our Youth makes a sly study of the adolescent tribe

Big boys have their hiding places, too.

Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth is an acerbic comedy about two boy-men taking cover from the adult world. Warren Straub (Mark Ruffalo), the younger and sadder-souled of the pair, has just stuffed a knapsack with $15,000 of his lingerie-king father's cash, and hightailed it out of the house before his dad could get wind of the theft - which Warren prefers to think of as "the proceeds of my unhappy childhood." He carries along with him a suitcase full of memorabilia and childhood toys: Frank Zappa albums, plastic spacemen, a rare vintage toaster recalled by its manufacturer in 1955 and a Wrigley Field baseball cap from his grandfather. Showing up at the apartment of his friend and sometime drug dealer, Dennis Ziegler (Mark Rosenthal), Warren pleads for shelter, and is grudgingly admitted for the weekend.

Welcome to the den of Dennis, a 22-year-old Peter Pan with a prep school diploma. He and Warren have both blown off college, and they have enough unfocused angst to claim membership in the Holden Caulfield Hall of Arrested Development. At the cusp of their twenties, neither Dennis nor Warren know what they want, so long as they don't grow up to resemble their families, the affluent, self-satisfied elite of New York's Upper West Side.

Lonergan's protagonists are aware that their parents' money gives them the mileage to be "fuck-ups," but they also know that they are running out of excuses. They don't mistake their own disaffection for moral authenticity; it's just a way of gaining some breathing room until they figure out what they want. Dennis has fantasies about someday directing films (though in the meantime he's satisfied skimming drug sales off his former high school pals). Warren admits to the girl he admires that he would like to go somewhere and start again: "What the hell am I doing languishing in this trash heap for? The intellectual stimulation? I'm not getting any. All I do is smoke pot. I can do that anywhere. I can just bring that with me, you know?"

This Is Our Youth is a play about molting: shedding the tribal skin of adolescence in hopes that another will grow in its place. It's a testament to Lonergan's slyness and restraint as a writer that one comes to care powerfully about his hapless Warren - who has a way of reminding you instinctively how much the empty spaces inside your heart ached at his age.

The play has been a dark-horse success since its brief first appearance two years ago, in a production by the New Group at the INTAR theatre. In its long-anticipated second incarnation, Youth retains most of its original team (Rosenthal is the only newcomer). The skilled cast and designers, together with director Mark Brokaw, work together with an affectionate and understated realism. Anyone who came of age in the '80s in New York will have a sensation of deja vu on encountering Dennis's one-room "grunge palace," created onstage with such loving detail you can almost smell the stale pizza and sweat socks. …

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