Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play set in 1982, at the dawn of the Reagan era, is a pretty awful affair that annoyingly finds lots to say about absolutely nothing of any interest.
The play supposedly depicts 24 hours in the lives of three rich middle class kids from New York's Upper West Side, who are rebelling against professional class culture where money, power and career are all that matters. Warren has stolen $15,000 from his dad and leaves home to stay with Dennis his only ‘friend’.
Dennis is none too pleased that Warren has turned up at his flat with this stolen money. He can foresee Warren being forgiven by his father, whilst he will be the drug-dealing villain left carrying the blame. Dennis therefore comes up with ingenious, but illegal ways to replace the stolen money that Warren has already spent. This way Warren can return home with the stolen money and be reconciled with his Father. Dennis also sets up Warren with a ‘date’ with Jessica, whom Warren has desires for. Basically that’s the plot.
What occurs now is meaningless dialogue between Dennis and Warren that is heavily punctuated with swearwords such as “C*nt”, “Ars*hole” and “Fu*k Off”, which miraculously draws cheap laughter from the young people in the audience! Nothing wrong with this ordinarily as this is how a lot of young people talk, but unfortunately that is all the audience has to laugh at, as much of the script is not terribly exciting or funny.
Lonergan does not delve into the real reasons the characters behave as they do. Why does Warren deliberately choose to annoy his father? Warren’s sister was murdered, but how does this relate to his problems? Why is he totally in love with the hat his grandma gave him? Why did he leave home with his toy collection that he loves so dearly, but then is so easily persuaded by Dennis to sell it? Why does he allow Dennis to boss him around and humiliate him? Why is he friendly with Dennis in the first place, as they don’t seem to have anything in common? Maybe it’s because Dennis is the only person that has paid any attention to him.
Why is Dennis so alienated? The only clue we are given is that he is infuriated with his mother because she is a famous artist.
This play was nominated for a Drama Desk Best Play Award in 1996, but I cannot think why. It is such a lazy script in that it simply poses questions and provides little in the way of answers. There are other plays that do this, but at least the questions are absorbing and thought provoking and one is giving the opportunity to engage with the characters, but here we are left with nothing other than hollow conversation embellished by adolescent expressions.
This drama is a non-event, which is quite an achievement considering it contains drugs and sex, and so it is left to the actors to salvage something from the play. Hayden Christensen as Dennis is fine as a conniving, annoying drug dealing rat, but it is Jake Gyllenhaal as the sensitive Warren and Anna Paquin as the talkative Jessica that truly retrieves something from this mire! In fact, it is only when these two are together on the stage that the play has any real bite or interest in that we see real emotion being expressed.
I may not have liked it, but it has been well-received by the popular press: IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, “Funny, moving and beautifully written.” CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “Laurence Boswell directs this marvellous trio of actors with both confidence and an illuminating attention to detail." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “As a portrait of a generation of instinctive drifters, Lonergan's play is often very funny.” He goes on to say the play is “likeable”. MADDY COSTA for TIMEOUT says the production is , "Witty and poignant", but "tells us nothing new". NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Lonergan… encourages more cynicism than admiration with this inert piece, magnificently acted by three American film stars.”
In my opinion, if it were not for the young popular film stars this show would sink completely. This short run is more than this play deserves and I certainly don’t expect to see it on the West End again for many years to come, if at all.
Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant look at a generation of youths on the brink of adulthood reopens at the Garrick Theatre now boasting a new trio of young Hollywood actors, however this cast change seems more profitable for the producers than it is for the audience. No thank you. Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix play Lonergan’s disaffected youths in Lawrence Boswell’s sloppy, disappointing second take, and despite ironing out some of the creases left by the previous cast, are more of a mess than Jeremy Herbert’s squalid Upper West Side apartment set.
Not a lot happens in the two and a bit hours the play runs: Warren (Affleck) steals $15,000 off his successful lingerie dealer father, and brings it to his friend Dennis (Damon) where they decide what to do with it. Along the way are a few shenanigans with drugs, money and girls (the one we see being Jessica, the object of Warren’s affections, played by Phoenix) whilst they struggle with their opinions and growing up in the shadows of their wealthy, made parents. What lets such a character-driven evening down therefore are actors who cannot sustain the audience’s interest or care, let alone their own characters.
Damon’s predecessor, Hayden Christensen, brought a certain degree of menace and selfishness to a young man who fights with himself to give him some sense of worth, when in fact the life he leads takes him no where; being on the cusp of adulthood but not knowing where to go. Damon certainly has stage presence in spades, but his characterisation seems to ride along different rails to Lonergan’s Dennis. What seems to be a terrible act of miscasting has Damon occasionally growing angry but then instantly reverting to his charismatic self: there is seemingly no characterisation here, and if at times it does emerge, it is never sustained. Damon never manages to take his character beyond the surface level of the text the way Christensen did, and the result is him looking alarmingly out of place. Casey Affleck manages to maintain the strongest characterisation, but never manages to sustain some of the awkward tensions between him and Phoenix’s odd, brashly opinionated Jessica, leaving moments of this play spookily empty. Nor does he manage to evoke Warren’s self pity for the way things turn out, or provoke the audience’s pity for him. Sad, but the new stars in this play do not shine brightly.
Links to full reviews from newspapers...
This is Our Youth, at the Garrick Theatre on Charring Cross Road continues the trend of bringing Hollywood to the West End, starring as it does, three up-and-coming starlets, with an impressive list of film credits between them, performing the work of writer Kenneth Lonergan, who himself has a notable Hollywood biography. Sadly all this talent translates pretty poorly to the stage. Indeed at times I wondered whether the cast were waiting for someone to shout “Cut!” so that they could have another go.
The plot is a mixture of early 80s period piece and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent West End Theatre Adventure”. Dennis Ziegler (Hayden Christensen) lives in a pokey apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, paid for by his parents to get him out of their hair. He has carved himself a little niche in the local drugs business, using the access he has to other moneyed kids to turn a nice profit. His afternoon is rudely disturbed when supposed friend Warren Straub (Jake Gyllenhaal) turns up with his worldly possessions, having been kicked out of home by his father, not before he had helped himself to the $15,000 that his father just happened to have lying around the house in a brief case. Dennis, who is happy enough to screw up people’s lives with his drug-pushing, is freaked out by the presence of all the money, but decides that it would be okay to spend some of it on having a good time, as long as Warren returns it to his Dad, intact, on Monday morning. This, of course, will be achieved via Dennis’s business skills, adept as he is in turning a nice profit from his drug dealing.
Into all this comes Jessica (Anna Paquin), the foxy friend of Dennis’s girlfriend, who finds herself left alone with Warren in Dennis’s apartment, whilst Dennis is in search of the hit the boys want to kick-start their weekend of excess. Not content with the insalubrious surroundings of Dennis’s apartment for his seduction of Jessica, Warren decides to dip further into his Dad’s cash to fund a night in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel.
The next morning Warren returns to Dennis’s apartment with tales of his blitzkrieg conquest of the night before… and the inane and pointless banter between the two continues, until it is decided that in order to bridge the ever growing gap between the money they have left and the money they have agreed to return on Monday morning (less Dennis’s profit margin), they will have to sell the contents of Warren’s suitcase, which remarkably contains a collection of alleged antique and therefore valuable toys, magazines and records… and a toaster. If you have not had enough by this stage, then the final scene will surely kill you off. Dennis learns that the vendor of the cocaine that the boys were planning to sell-on to make up for the lost money has died of an overdose during the night. This sends him into an angst ridden tailspin of self-reflection, on which note the curtain falls.
What on earth Kenneth Lonergan is trying to achieve with this play, I have no idea. On the one hand, it is in part amusing, and had it stuck to the publicist’s line (“$15,000, an ounce of cocaine, and one night to blow it”), This is Our Youth might have actually worked well. Yet, for some unknown reason, Lonergran tries to turn this into a kind of social commentary that results in a deeply pretentious and entirely meaningless mess – of what relevance is the murder of Warren’s sister, who cares that Dennis develops a conscience from nowhere, on hearing of the death of someone he didn’t even like – spurred on by some pretty unattractive acting.
The only possible merit that This is Our Youth might have is that it may well be responsible for bringing a new, younger, patronage into West End theatres – mind you, that’s just as well, as I doubt many other people will bother seeing it.