Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera
Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera Credit: Michael Brosilow

Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth starts with 21-year-old Dennis Ziegler hanging out in his studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, watching TV. (Since the year is 1982, it’s a big, freestanding cube of a set—the kind with vacuum tubes inside.) The stage directions say he’s got an “old black-and-white movie” on, but they’re not specific about which one. If you’re sitting in the right (i.e., south) section of Steppenwolf Theatre’s upstairs space, though, you can glimpse Boris Karloff on the screen. There’s a fez on his head, and that can mean only one thing: that director Anna D. Shapiro decided Dennis should be watching the original 1932 version of The Mummy.

It’s an artful choice. The Mummy is about an ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep, who comes back from the tomb after thousands of years, hoping to be reunited with his beloved, a princess called Ankh-es-en-amon. With a few modifications, that’s what Lonergan’s ugly/sweet 1996 two-act is about too.

Of course, those modifications are fairly significant. The mummy in This Is Our Youth isn’t an Egyptian priest. He isn’t swathed in bandages, doesn’t answer to the name of Imhotep, or know a girl named Ankh-es-en-amon. He doesn’t even wear a fez. He’s Warren Straub, a friend of Dennis’s whose mob-connected dad has made a fortune in the lingerie business. Warren doesn’t sleep in a sarcophagus hidden under desert sands but at a swell condo on Central Park West.

And yet he’s very definitely entombed. Traumatized by the murder of his sister at the hands of her abusive boyfriend, smacked around and berated himself by a father who can’t figure out why success doesn’t seem to have solved his problems, abandoned by a mother who’s decamped to another coast, Warren keeps himself sedated with round-the-clock infusions of weed and what-have-you. (Warren telling Dennis about a conversation with the elder Mr. Straub: “I got stoned and he comes home and he’s like, ‘This apartment smells like pot all the time.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, ’cause I’m always smoking it.'”)

Warren makes a gesture toward self-reanimation by stealing a big chunk of cash from dad and running away to Dennis’s place (which Dennis’s parents rent for him in order to keep him out of theirs). But that’s a stopgap at best. Grandiose and combative and wound extratight—just the array of tendencies you’d expect the coke he snorts to aggravate—Dennis bullies Warren as a kind of involuntary twitch.

And Warren responds by maintaining a walking-dead air of dissociation around his putative pal. He’s anomic rather than angry, opaque, although he feigns engagement by repeating “What’s up?” until it gets on Dennis’s nerves. In a strong performance of weakness by Michael Cera—the film actor known for Juno and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World—Warren cultivates a physical and verbal deadpan. You can almost feel him willing himself stupid.

Until Jessica Goldman shows up. Consider her Warren’s Upper West Side Ankh-es-en-amon. The aura of vacancy begins to fall away when she appears at Dennis’s door expecting to see Dennis’s girlfriend. It’s not as if Warren suddenly bursts into new life—after all, he’s been buried for the psychic equivalent of millennia. But something clearly shifts in him. The opacity softens into translucence. The dissociation morphs into an amusing sense of irony. The mummy, it turns out, has a nice, dry wit.

If you want a hint about how things turn out, see the Karloff movie. Lonergan doesn’t make things easy for Warren. Jessica may feel a certain pull in his direction, but she’s no less fucked-up than anyone else in the play—or in the social cul-de-sac the play depicts, for that matter. The best thing about This Is Our Youth is its exquisite feel for the strategies damaged people use to protect the last bits of their sense of self from what they regard as the certainty of attack. Like Dennis and Warren, Jessica suffers from an everyday domestic version of PTSD, and her chosen mode of dealing with it involves picking fights before they can be picked with her.

That may be the most challenging thing about it, too. Given that Lonergan’s characters are continually trying to deflect the inevitable punch in the face, they’re naturally vigilant, and their language is about vigilance as much as it’s about the many oafish or inchoate or wacked-out or silly things they say. To a remarkable degree, then, the onus is on the actor to express the maneuvers going on under the talk. In Shapiro’s production, which is prepping here for a run on Broadway, only Cera really accomplishes that task. Although Kieran Culkin has some sharp moments demonstrating Dennis’s technique of preemptively shoving aggression down the throat of anyone who may consider crossing him, his basic approach to embodying the guy’s emotional life is to talk fast. Tavi Gevinson simply doesn’t give us an opening into Jessica—which makes her realistic, all right, but not terribly compelling.