Monday, September 15, 2014

This Is Our Youth: A Postcard of My Past

I learned from Follies the danger in looking back at your past.  It was either Follies or a high school reunion or that time I tried on a dress which totally fit last year and doesn't fit now.

Time marches on.  And there are a few pieces of theater that I have put in my memory vault because they were so important to me at the time--Arcadia, Angels in America, and This Is Our Youth are all in there.  I didn't blog in those days.  I think we had the internet but I was very suspicious of it. So all I have are my memories.  And they are vivid memories.  Certain performances, bits of staging, and emotions are all wrapped up together in my mind.  I saw the original New Group production of This Is Our Youth in the late 90's and can still hear Mark Ruffalo's line readings as Warren when I read the script. I can see his shuffling, sad puppy face as he tries to open himself up and he's wounded. 

So it was natural that I went into the new Broadway production of This Is Our Youth filled with trepidation. It's a play that is important to me in the most personal of ways. 

So what's the hubub about.  The play written by Kenneth Lonergan, is about Dennis (Kieran Culkin) who deals drugs to his rich, privileged UWS high school friends including perennial fuck-up Warren (Michael Cera). One night Warren shows up to Dennis's apartment having stolen a lot of money from his father and looking to squander it in a variety of ways. Warren has the hots for Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) and she happens to stop by Dennis's apartment that evening. And these characters talk, plan, dread, and reflect.  It's not a play about plot. 

For me the play always spoke to the difficulty of finding a connection in the world, being understood, finding love, desperately trying to hold onto those things as they slip through your fingers.  Age is irrelevant in this but perhaps the younger you are the more hope you have that perhaps, this time it will work out.  I got lost in Warren's fragile heart and the indignities of his small and big failures.  And age is critical to the story where you look at these young people so frustrated with the world's expectations focused on them.  The future is looming.   And it feels like everyone is waiting to see what greatness you will achieve, when life itself is just so hard to live every day. 

In the new production, directed by Anna Shapiro, I tried hard to be open to the new "choices" made and aware of my bias.  Ultimately, I found the production mediocre and not living up to the greatness of the play.  And the shallow performances broke my heart. 

There were some really interesting aspects to this production, so let's start with the positives.  Culkin played Dennis as a much more sexually fluid character than I had seen before. I really liked the reinterpretation of an 80's preppy, dead-behind-the-eyes, misogynist being actually just as insecure and neurotic as his pal. But pretending (poorly) that he's not.  Culkin's Dennis had greater true affection for Warren and his bullying of Warren came off as softer somehow.  With this below the surface adoration for Warren, I would have expected Dennis's betrayal of Warren to have hit the mark more acutely. But it did not.  But probably because by that point in the production the audience thought it was a sitcom and was barreling over everything with laughter.

Part of the sitcom energy seemed to be driven simply by Cera's presence.  The audience opted to read everything he did as comic deadpan. I don't think he was trying for that but his well-established film and TV reputation got in the way.  Then again, for me, he wasn't offering much more anyway.  He had about two expressions and I found once he'd established his version of Warren at the get-go he struggled to get to any other place with the character. I was in the second row and he did well up with emotion late in the play.  But you had to strain to see it.  It was not an effective stage performance. 

This is not an easy play to perform and anyone who thinks it is is missing the giant iceberg of subtext in every line.  But these guys seemed to be skating on the surface not plumbing the tremendous depths of the text.  AND THAT IS AN ACTUAL CRIME. 

And as for Gevinson, she was a disaster. On the one hand the idea that Jessica was a goofy, awkward partner well-suited to the strange Warren was an interesting choice.  She had always read as a character slightly out of his reach at the start but comes around as a more suitable partner.  But here Gevinson is playing her as this broad comedienne which might have been fine but she did not have the acting talent/comedic timing to pull it off. With a verbal affectation (see Jessica Hecht and every play she's done in the last 5 years)  I never felt she had any sense of why she was doing what she was doing. 

Cera and Culkin must have been told to play up their characters' frenetic drug-addled energy and each makes different choices to execute that with some angular anxiety. Cera with one hand buried in his pants pocket at all times. Culkin with the constant mussing of his own hair. But neither choice felt organic.  Everything they did seemed telegraphed and actor-y.  Neither actor seemed to truly fuse their stage business with their character.  They were hitting their marks and doing what they were told, but neither seemed 100% to believe who they were. They felt like two pals rough-housing on stage but the depth of emotions the characters have for each other--whether anger, resentment, affection, or fidelity never comes across.

Of the three, I liked Culkin the most but I wonder if it's because he didn't have the heavy emotional lifting the other two had.  Maybe no one could ever live up to Ruffalo's transcendent performance. But Cera didn't even seem to have a range of emotions. And for a role that is nuanced and heart-breaking I was sad to leave the show heartbroken for a myriad of reasons having nothing to do with  the play and all to do with the production.

I really liked some of the choices Anna Shapiro made.  At one point seating Warren in a chair wedged into the most awkward spot in the room said so much about his character.  And when Warren and Jessica were seated at the table and somehow managed to get close to holding hands (from where I was sitting I couldn't see if they actually touched). 

The problem with audience laughter did not feel like it was borne of the direction.  But maybe those with more insight on directing would have a stronger take on that.  It seemed to me that even the actors weren't leaning on comedy to get them through the play (well only occasionally perhaps). 

I love this play.  I can read it and re-read it and feel the painful stings of defeat, loss, and confusion.  I weep for Warren when he's so hurt and cannot express it.  But I left this production dry-eyed.  When the most beautiful and sad of lines gets trampled with audience laughter at a moment where nothing is funny and everything is tragic I started to feel like Broadway audiences didn't deserve this wonderful play.

Grumpily yours,

Mildly Bitter

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