The scene is an apartment in New York, though it could just as easily be an apartment in Newtown: stains on the walls, pizza boxes piling up in the kitchen, a basketball in the sink and records crammed into milk crates. Twenty-one-year-old Dennis Ziegler (a floppy-haired Kieran Culkin) sits on his scungy mattress, watching TV, pointedly paying as little attention as possible to the intruder in his domain: 19-year-old Warren Straub (a cotton-candy-haired Michael Cera, making his stage debut). Warren is carrying $15,000 swiped from his lingerie businessman father – minus money for cab fare and sushi – and is looking for somewhere to stay.
Reluctantly, Dennis takes Warren in, seemingly on the unspoken understanding that he’ll be treated as part-punching bag, part-plaything. In between financial planning sessions and drags of pot, Warren is verbally walloped over everything from his crummy track record with girls to his dead family members. With friends like these, etc. Things start to look up for Warren, though, with the departure of Dennis and the arrival of Jessica (an immaculately-haired Emily Barclay), a fashion student as opinionated as she is pretty.
Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth has been running on star power (that most renewable of energy sources) since it premiered way back in 1996. Colin Hanks, Hayden Christensen, Matt Damon and Chris Klein have all had a go at Dennis; Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Casey Affleck, Freddie Prinze, Jr and Kieran Culkin himself have given Warren a crack; and Alison Lohman and Summer Phoenix have tried Jessica on for size. So what is it about this play that lures Hollywood actors to make the leap to the stage?
Maybe part of the play’s appeal for screen actors is that it looks easy: it feels more like a sitcom than a live theatre production. The situations, the set, the characters and, for the most part, the performances, all look and sound like they've been lifted from
CBS’s Monday night line-up.
Certainly, even with the most stage time out of the cast, Cera gets away with staying very much in his comfort zone. He’s at his best paired with Barclay, when the palpable sexual tension gives him the chance to do some of that hands-in-pockets floundering he’s turned into an art form (see Arrested Development, Juno, Superbad, Youth in Revolt, etc). He’s also fun to watch alone – especially during a bit of physical business in the second half which uncannily preempts the comic sensibilities of Judd Apatow. Next to Culkin’s Dennis, however, where he is for most of the show, Cera’s Warren, frustratingly, gets to be little more than scenery.
This is partly due to Culkin’s performance, which comes from another direction entirely. His Dennis is a kinetic bundle of chronic tics, constantly climbing over things and pawing at his face – but the problem is that none of it feels as dangerous as it’s supposed to. This itself is partly due to the venue: it would take a lot more than what Culkin gives it to register in the distant and well-cushioned Drama Theatre.
The biggest issue of all, however, is not with Cera or Culkin’s individual performances. It’s the fact that, together, they simply fail to fizz. It turns out to be Sydney stage regular Barclay, rather than the crowd-pulling American celebrity performers, who makes the strongest impression in the show – and not simply because she’s dressed better. In relatively little time on stage, Barclay provides a level of detail and nuance that her co-stars don’t access. Possibly it's because she's mastered the art of continuing to act when she's not the centre of attention.
Even 16 years after it was written and 30 years after it’s set, Lonergan’s script is spot-on in capturing the way 19- and 21-year-olds speak to each other. What’s less convincing is what he has the characters speak about: the dialogue alternates clumsily between banal anecdote-telling to the sort of heavy-handed, philosophical discourse in which you can just about hear the dull ‘thud’ as the Themes of the Play hit the floor.
A word about the soundtrack. It’s almost believable that Dennis and Warren would have a thing for Frank Zappa, even the album that arguably no Zappa fan actually likes. What’s less believable is that Dennis would choose to seduce Jessica to a song about the torment of venereal disease (that, incidentally, isn’t even on the record he puts on the turntable). Music track selection in a theatre context is not just about setting the mood – it’s an opportunity to illuminate something or other about the characters, the setting and the story. Here, it seems, the choices are disappointingly arbitrary.
In any case, the Sydney Opera House has had no problem getting bums on seats. They’ve sold out a week-and-a-half of performances and are now resorting to selling standing room tickets. What’s slightly depressing about this fact is that there’s a danger that young people who snapped up This Is Our Youth tickets might come away thinking that theatre is television’s poorer cousin: one naturalistic set, way too many phone conversations with offstage characters and everything plodding slowly towards a feeble yawn of an ending. A dislodged basketball dropping off a couch and rolling off the stage during this performance was about as theatrical as it got.
Ultimately, the thing that makes This Is Our Youth most resemble an American sitcom is the feeling that nothing will really have changed by the end of the show. Even Dennis’s late-in-the-piece catharsis is seemingly undone before everything peters out. One of the messages of Lonergan’s would-be fable of over-privileged Manhattanites and their #firstworldproblems is that these kids are insulated from any real drama in their lives. The point is perhaps a little too well made.
Read our interview with Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Emily Barclay
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