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This Is Our Youth
at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Adam Langer
If there’s been a better performance this year than Lance Baker’s drugged-out, hyped-up, moody, loopy, ferociously honest, heartbreakingly vulnerable 18-year-old college dropout Warren Straub in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, I haven’t seen it. Actually, scratch this year. Make it any year. Baker’s performance is one for the scrapbooks; you can cut this one out and tape it up right next to your pictures of John Malkovich in True West, Laurie Metcalf in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Joe Mantegna in Glengarry Glen Ross, Paul Butler in Jitney, and Ted Levine and Stephan Turner in just about anything. In its own quirky, stoner way, Baker’s performance is every bit their equal.
Baker is also ably supported by the other members of the cast–there’s hardly a false moment in Abigail Deser’s Roadworks production of this viciously on-target portrayal of disaffected, affluent youth in Reagan-era America. Armando Riesco brings infectious hilarity to the role of Warren’s drug-dealing buddy Dennis Ziegler, playing off Baker like the second banana in an expert comedy duo in their wrestling matches and other ridiculous male-bonding rituals. And Carri Levenson brings considerable neurotic wit and intelligence to the not always satisfyingly written role of design student Jessica Goldman, Warren’s first and possibly last chance for love. Riesco and Levenson are never short of excellent, but Baker achieves brilliance.
He’s delivered superbly controlled performances before, in Roadworks’ accomplished productions of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice and James Finney Boylan’s ambitious, flawed The Planets. But this is a showier role that allows him to let loose and demonstrate his amazing range. Whether he’s dancing in a frenzy to one of Warren’s prize record albums, mopily hiding beneath the hood of his sweatshirt, proudly showing off his childhood toy robots and antique toaster, accidentally whipping a football across Dennis’s apartment into a sculpture or set of dishes, desperately cutting up cocaine after a miserable phone conversation with his father, or clumsily but endearingly courting Jessica, he is always riveting, always sympathetic, always believable. And as far as the courtship scene with Jessica goes, I can’t recall the last time I wanted so badly for a character to have everything work out.
Lonergan’s play is set in the early 80s, when teenagers’ lives seemed to revolve around drugs and sex–even if you weren’t into drugs or having much luck in the sex department. Head shops were still common, and there was enough parental stock market cash around to keep the red three-foot bongs full. It was the era of concert shirts and the last gasp of the sexual revolution, before AIDS snuffed it out. The Parkway at Clark and Diversey showed double features every night, and everywhere you looked someone was firing up a water pipe. When our teen theater troupe went to Manhattan, one 12-year-old dude made sure there was enough hash to go around while we watched Yes sing “Roundabout” on Saturday Night Live; meanwhile, others planned an orgy. Lonergan clearly knows this era well and draws it with such precision and detail that you half expect the stodgy Jeff committee member seated next to you to yell “Don’t bogart that joint” instead of coughing and blowing away the smoke with his program.
This Is Our Youth is a deceptively simple work. Taking place over the course of less than 24 hours, it’s essentially a character study of three overeducated, undermotivated, soon-to-be Gen X slackers living in a world where readily available money and infinite opportunities have only made them feel more rootless and aimless. There’s the skeleton of a plot–Warren shows up one night on Dennis’s doorstep with $15,000 in cash he took from his father after being thrown out of the house, and the two debate both whether Warren should give it back and how best to squander it. Some of the money gets put to good use when Warren drops a grand on a suite at the Plaza, where he and Jessica enjoy a bliss that’s all too rare for the characters in this play.
But Lonergan–also the screenwriter of the Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal vehicle Analyze This–is smart enough to know that plot should never be allowed to interfere with great dialogue and lively characters. Warren and Dennis’s beautifully written and performed rapid-fire exchanges on topics both inane and profound contain some of the funniest lines I’ve heard in a long time. Lonergan is capable of pathos too, particularly when Warren lets his guard down with the rudely inquisitive Jessica and describes the pain he still feels over the death eight years earlier of his older sister, a death his father’s money couldn’t prevent.
There are times–consider the clunky title, which sounds like an introductory video for the Moral Majority–when Lonergan tries too hard to make Big Statements about the role that Reagan-era politics played in creating a nation where no one had to be ashamed any longer of being a greedy, egomaniacal son of a bitch. (Lonergan’s point of view is especially useful now that Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan seems to be recasting the former president as an Ayn Rand-ian hero who made Americans proud of their country again.) When Jessica and Warren debate man’s relation to his fellow man, one can feel Lonergan straining to position his work above the undergraduate playwright’s dorm-room slice of life it occasionally resembles. But even in these moments this production never ceases to be both moving and incredibly entertaining.
Abigail Deser’s main contribution, as it was in her delightful staging of Dealer’s Choice, is to create a production so vivid, so expertly detailed, so engaging that one feels completely immersed in the action. Geoffrey M. Curley’s set pulses with authenticity, making use of a window that looks out on Halsted and placing the audience on pillows on carpeted risers that feel like part of Dennis’s Upper West Side apartment.
This Is Our Youth is running for a short time in the small-capacity garage space at Steppenwolf. I’d catch it soon, before it sells out and Lance Baker is whisked away to the west coast.