This Is Our Youth
First staged in 1996, Kenneth Lonergan's two-act play, This is Our Youth, is a backward glance to the previous decade and its era of wretched excesses. But it is also more than that.
Under Lewis D. Wheeler's taut, inspired direction, this Gloucester Stage production, running through August 25, reveals a multi-generational preference for escapism through intoxicants and the rebellious spirit that romances drug use as an avenue to attain intimacy and euphoria.
David Rabe explored a similar theme in the play (and later movie) "Hurlyburly," written a decade before Lonergan's script. Lonergan owes at least a puff of the bong to Rabe, whose Los Angeles hipster characters fuel up on coke only to enhance their self-abuse while they exploit others for sport (and sexual release).
Where Lonergan's script parts ways with his mentor David Rabe is that his script is shorter by an hour or more, and is set in New York City, which, by its very nature, brings an added element of danger.
We meet Dennis Ziegler (Jimi Stanton) who is living in a one-room flat in Manhattan thanks to the generosity of his father, an ailing painter, who pays his expenses. Dennis doesn't do much with himself except skulk about his room, arguing with his (off-stage) girlfriend on the phone, and heaping abuse on his high school chum Warren Staub (Alex Pollock), with whom he shares pot, cocaine, occasional heroin, booze, and talk of sex.
When Warren appears at his doorstep one night, Dennis is loath to grant him audience, except when he discovers his pal has cash and drugs to share, as well as a tale of woe. Oh, and there's the not-so-small matter of the money Warren has pilfered from his dad, $15,000.00 in cash, to be exact.
The wheels of the plot begin spinning rapidly at this juncture, and we learn family histories, cycles of abuse, neglect, friendship, loss and death. The dialog is clever, often painful, but never dull. And by using this device of peering into these very real characters' family stories, we learn that there is really nothing new under the sun, or with the sons. Money -- either hustled or stolen or dispensed through familial guilt, but never earned - is at the root of it. It replaces real human feelings. In this sense, Lonergan mimics David Rabe whose L.A. hipsters were all "show me the money," the condoms, and the blow.
The cast is rounded out admirably by Jessica Goldman (Amanda Collins), who is dispatched to Dennis' apartment to hook up with Warren for an evening of partying. Here Lewis Wheeler shines in his direction. The two want become intimate, but really don't get along. The banter is awkward. The body language is lugubrious. It's like the song, "Hey 19," by Steely Dan, wherein the couple, brought together by the promise of drug and alcohol use, find intimacy can be attained by a shared need to get high.
The cast is exceptional throughout. Stanton and Collins - although not paired - appeared last season at Gloucester Stage in the triumphant "9 Circles," Bill Cain's brilliant take on the Iraqi war. Cast again in this show, they bring the same intensity to their roles, as well as a seething sexuality.
As Warren, Alex Pollock not only speaks his lines from the gut, he channels them through body language, a lanky ill-at-ease pacing, as if his legs were springs, and his lanky torso more akin to Gumby than to a human. Lonergan is generous to all three characters, and each is given moments to shine. Stanton has his meltdown moment that is effectively conveyed by his buff physique. It's wonderful acting, simply put. But all three together command the stage with authority.
The set by Jenna McFarland Lord is rat-trap cozy. The costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley are drab, but reflective of the period. And the lighting by John Malinowski is splendid, highlighting the seediness of the room, the fire-escape just beyond, and the sense of the city beyond that, pressing its snout against the smudged windowpane.
Much credit goes to Lewis D. Wheeler's attentive work to the script. He carries on a proud family tradition of directing trail blazed by his late father, David.
This Is Our Youth, by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lewis D. Wheeler, presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theatre, Gloucester, Mass., through August 25. For ticket information visit their website www.gloucesterstage.com.