The youth of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth are the perpetually adolescent children of lapsed baby boomers. You know the type: They marched against injustice in the 1960s, raised families and burnished resumes in the 1970s, and elected Ronald Reagan to protect their newfound status in the 1980s. This is the social context of the play, which is set in Manhattan in 1982, though in truth Lonergan isn’t much interested in social context beyond the outline just provided. (The original production opened in 1996, shortly before the re-election of Bill Clinton.) The alienation felt by his drifting, drug-dealing protagonists is the alienation of every generation as it approaches adulthood … or at least of those members whose wealthy parents are willing, however grudgingly, to subsidize their rebellion.
The reason the play works is that Lonergan manages to empathize with his characters—all of whom have been victimized, to greater or lesser extents, by the failings of their emotionally stunted elders—without absolving them of responsibility for their self-destructive impulses and flagging ambition. It also helps that Lonergan writes wickedly funny dialogue that, when delivered by capable actors, keeps the audience laughing too hard to turn judgmental. Fortunately, there is much laughter to be had in the fine production directed by Jacki Null and playing through May 22 at the Chesapeake Academy in Arnold, home of Standing O Productions.
This Is Our Youth unfolds entirely in the Upper West Side apartment of Dennis Ziegler (Ron Giddings), whose petty attempts to squeeze profits from his pot-smoking, coke-snorting friends are to his mind evidence of burgeoning entrepreneurial skills; meanwhile his parents pay his rent and he occasionally remembers to fill his refrigerator with something other than water. One evening as Dennis lounges on his mattress, his friend Warren (Samuel Gillam) drops by with a suitcase and a gym bag stuffed with $15,000, which he has stolen from his father, a self-made lingerie tycoon.
As Dennis and Warren get high and scheme how to spend the money, Lonergan deftly lays out their relationship, which seems founded on Dennis’s compulsion to dish out abuse, both physical and verbal, and Warren’s willingness to take it. Giddings and Gillam tear into their lines with relish—the former’s manic delivery, as though Dennis were intent on throttling the world before it throttles him, contrasts effectively with the latter’s childlike enthusiasm to be with someone, anyone, who makes him feel cool. Gillam even adopts the endearing habit of chewing nervously on the drawstring of his green hoodie—one suspects Warren has been doing this since middle school.
These early scenes are funny, but the play doesn’t approach its emotional core until Dennis invites Jessica (Coty Warn), a student at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and the object of Warren’s not-so-secret affections, to the apartment. Dennis then leaves, hoping that Warren will take advantage of a rare opportunity to get laid. Free to be himself without fear of ridicule, Warren blossoms in Jessica’s presence; they argue over politics and the nature of personality—Jessica insists that young people are fated to turn into their parents, a position that Warren finds too depressing to be tenable—and bond over a shared interest in old records.
If this sounds terribly clichéd, perhaps it is, yet as written by Lonergan and acted by Gillam and Warn, who find their way into each other’s arms with perfect comic timing, the scene comes giddily alive with the possibility of love as an elixir to all of life’s problems.
Lonergan sets about demolishing such fantasies in Act Two, which is where his ambitions somewhat outstrip his playwriting skills. The unexpected death of an associate sends Dennis into a frenzy, and the result is a long, shapeless conversation punctuated by Dennis’s tedious attempts to state and restate the source of his fear. (In brief, he’s forced for the first time to take seriously the increasing likelihood of his own death.) I’ve seen This Is Our Youth twice now, and neither time did the actor playing Dennis pull off this monster of a monologue. I did sense Giddings struggling with his lines—the spaces between beats seemed unnaturally long, stretching out a sequence that is already too flat on the page. Yet I suspect even a flawless reading would not have imparted the necessary shape to Lonergan’s suddenly humorless dialogue. By the time the slowly fading lights signal the end of the play, a considerable amount of energy has been lost.