BWW Review: Treehouse Players THIS IS OUR YOUTH is Totally Rad
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan's THIS IS OUR YOUTH came to the playwright in a dream, as so many plays do for so many playwrights. However, they are usually a bit more epic than the story of three hapless youths set in the Reagan era 80's. That might sound discouraging, but don't let it dissuade you from reading on, or, particularly, heading over to the Santa Cruz Theatre to watch this tense story about not so very much unfold.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH premiered as a one act under a different title in 1992. Frequently produced since then, notable cast members have included Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Paquin, Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and, according to a decades old review in Variety a "genuine discovery" named Mark Ruffalo. Even Woody Harrelson got in on THIS IS OUR YOUTH, as the director of a Canadian production in 2003.
The plot may not seem that rad, but this cast is gnarly. The production is righteous and totally tubular. (Sorry, couldn't help it there) Luckily, Lonergan refrains from vernacular that would date the script. An Academy award winning director and oft nominated Oscar playwright, Lonergan gives this small cast all kinds of material to work with.
Arrogant Dennis Ziegler (Sam Domino) has had himself quite a night when the show starts, and his mousy best friend Warren (David Allen Barrera) is barely welcome when he rings the bell of Dennis's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Warren seems to have stolen $15,000 from his father and needs a place to crash while he figures out what to do. The money was intended, we learn, as a payoff for the gangsters with whom his father works. See, his dad isn't a criminal, he just works with them. Dennis, a verbally abusive, privileged, careless friend, devises a plan to buy cocaine and sell it to replace the money Warren has used. However, over the course of the night, Warren spends even more of it on Jessica (Vivian Glazier) with whom he is quite enamored; and Dennis, while successfully scoring the cocaine, has a brush with mortality that only helps him grow more self-centered.
The plot is thin - this might seem intentional so we can be left to explore the aimless time between adolescence and adulthood. And that's the heart of this play. Lonergan seems to use the plot as an excuse to showcase that (uncomfortable) period of time in the limbo of not knowing who you are but thinking you need to be something. In the eighties this meant fearlessly doing drugs (and drug deals) while frustrating the adults around you by having no direction. Was it just the 80's?
Despite these characters having no direction, Lonergan's (and these characters as played by Domino, Barrera and Glazier) character study makes THIS IS OUR YOUTH a decidedly engaging two hours. Domino delivers (not to be confused with Domino's Delivers, a different subject entirely) Lonergan's rich dialogue frenetically and intensely in contrast to Barrera's Warren, who is more cerebral and wordy than he first looks. Glazier's Jessica is equally awkward and poised (if that's possible) and the chemistry between she and Warren is evident despite the likelihood of anything happening beyond their offstage one-night stand. For that matter, the chemistry between Barrera and Domino is so effective I am led to wonder if these two aren't best friends outside the confines of this production. Director Jeremy Lee Cudd directs with a deft hand, taking us on a ride so well paced that intense physical outbursts don't cross boundaries in an intimate space and long conversations with very little movement are still engaging.
The set is a bland wonder to behold. It's a perfect rendering not just of a rundown 80's apartment, but a reminder of every play set in a living room performed in the 80's. Having said this, I did find it odd, not just in the case of this production, but in most others as well, that this upper West Side of Manhattan apartment is so rundown. These privileged kids can't really just be scraping by. That's a question not just for Tomas Salas, who designed this set, but the playwright himself, who claims to have loved the Steppenwolf Theatre's set (much like this one) as well. However, this is a small objection in the face of a superior production.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH is, in a way, an actor's play. At its heart it is a character study that examines a specific experience many of us have at a specific time. It has no grand themes to examine or statements to make. As such, its appeal could be confined to a limited audience. It would be a mistake though, to miss the excellence of this new theatre company and the beauty of these characters as brought to vibrant life by this cast.
In other words, go see THIS IS OUR YOUTH. Don't miss some great theatre by one of our newest companies.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH
Directed by Jeremy Lee Cudd
May 31 - June 16, 2019
Santa Cruz Center for Culture
1805 E. 7th Street
Austin, TX, 78702
Fridays - Saturdays at 8:00 PM
Sundays at 5:00 PM
Running time: two hours
Tickets available here
Photo: Treehouse Players