BWW Review: Sex and Drugs on the Upper West Side
This Is Our Youth
Written by Kenneth Lonergan, Directed by Lewis D. Wheeler; Set Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Production Stage Manager, Marsha Smith
Performances through August 25 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Remember the '80s? Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, cell phones were a thing of the future, and the children of the Baby Boomers were transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood. Then, as now, it was not an easy journey, and missteps and stumbles occurred along the way. In his 1996 play This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan offers a gritty, powerful look at the lives of three privileged kids on Manhattan's Upper West Side as they try to find themselves in a messed-up world.
Things are well in hand under the direction of Lewis D. Wheeler, making his Gloucester Stage directing debut. His three-person cast - Jimi Stanton, Alex Pollock, and Amanda Collins - is in total sync and maneuvers about Jenna McFarland Lord's set as if they actually live in the small, one-room apartment. The chaotic, unmoored existence of Dennis Ziegler (Stanton), Warren Straub (Pollock), and Jessica Goldman (Collins) is played out with precision, high energy, and raw emotion by this trio of talented young actors.
Stanton exudes kinetic power as the egocentric wheeler-dealer Dennis, whose rent is paid by his parents because they are so grateful that he doesn't want to live with them. A self-proclaimed mathematical genius, Dennis is the ringleader of a group of bottom-feeding miscreants, mostly selling a variety of drugs, and a misogynistic creep who uses the nasty "c" word to describe his on-again, off-again, unseen girlfriend Valerie. Throughout the first act, Lonergan and Stanton establish that he's not a very nice guy and it feels like a relief when he makes his exit. There are moments when Stanton appears to be struggling with adopting the character's persona, but he totally inhabits him in the second act, especially when Dennis has a rude awakening.
At first blush, Warren is an aimless stoner/loser who looks up to Dennis, despite the fact that the older boy relentlessly verbally abuses him. Pollock has a knack for making himself appear smaller, shriveling into the corner of the couch with his chin on his chest when his character is berated by his friend. He virtually tiptoes around the living room, perhaps as a symbol of the way Warren moves through the minefield of his life. His father has thrown him out of the house, the culmination of a fraught arrangement overwhelmed by their unresolved grief over his sister's murder some years before. As a parting shot, Warren steals $15,000 cash from his father's briefcase and seeks advice from Dennis as the reality sinks in that this might not have been a good idea.
Pollock captures Warren's gentle, lost soul nature and is arguably most effective in his scenes with Collins. As she fidgets and he flits, their "dance" is part and parcel of the budding relationship between Jessica and Warren. Both the acting and the direction are organic as they gradually lower their guards and find a way to connect over his collection of childhood memorabilia. He holds tightly to the old toys as if they can take him back to a time before the unimaginable tragic event occurred, but their extrinsic value may hold the key to his financial survival. Jessica also finds emotional security in the evocative collection, even as she pretends to be an independent young woman no longer in need of parental supervision. Collins deftly portrays the duality in her character.
This Is Our Youth is an excellent entry in the GSC season theme of "Writes of Passage." Although the three characters have diverse personalities, they share a condition of being untethered in this moment in time, floundering with little or no guidance to take the next step in life. Their momentum drives them, but they all fear that the next step may be off a cliff and they're trying to figure out how to apply the brakes. The set and costumes (Gail Astrid Buckley) help to show what their lives are like; that despite being children of privilege, they live on The Edge, relying on marihuana and cocaine to get them through the day. Dennis' place is basically a crash pad, Warren Goes from couch to couch, and their jeans and t-shirts are worn repeatedly. Even though she has a home to go to, Jessica prefers to run around the city, but her interest in fashion assures that she is always well-dressed.
The play is not always easy to endure because of some of its themes, the abuse that Warren receives from Dennis, and the plethora of foul language. However, the unfolding of the relationship between Warren and Jessica, the hope that Warren's situation might be resolved favorably, and the promising future available to Dennis if he responds to his watershed moment, are the redeeming qualities of the story, the things that draw us in to make us care about these lost souls. These events of their youth are shaping their lives and we can only imagine where they will lead, but Lonergan gives us something to think about.