Fountain of Youth

No one can accuse Kenneth Lonergan of romanticizing the dilemmas of deluded, self-destructive rich kids. His This Is Our Youth is a gritty, moving, sometimes funny examination of the advantaged that perfectly captures the youthful horrors of the Me Generation. Lonergan's 1996 play was nominated for a Drama Desk award, and its second off-Broadway run in 1998 and current smash run in London's West End have made This Is Our Youth the preeminent youth culture story. The play is especially popular with Gen Y black box companies like Stray Cat Theatre, whose current production is a near-perfect success.

Set in 1982, the play depicts 24 hours in the lives of three Reagan-era rich kids straddling youth and adulthood on New York's Upper West Side. If you asked them, Dennis, Warren and Jessica would tell you they're rebelling against class culture. What we're privy to is something less romantic: These kids are, like a lot of postadolescents, confused losers on their way (we hope) to something better.

Warren has swiped $15,000 from his father and come to stay with Dennis, a loudmouth punk and small-time dope dealer whose filthy crash pad is paid for by his wealthy parents. Besides his father's lifted loot, Warren also has a suitcase full of vintage toys from the 1960s, toys that represent happier days, when his murdered sister was still alive and he wasn't bumming out on what Dennis calls "a sexual drought, like the Irish potato famine of 1848."

Jessica, a nutty naif whom Warren wants to bed, sums up their wobbly lives best when she says, "What you're like now has nothing to do with what you're gonna be like. Like, right now, you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burn-out rebel, but 10 years from now you'll be, like, a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be."

The three characters are consumed with building a bridge between callow youth and responsible adulthood while maintaining a rebel yell. And yell they do each of them, almost endlessly, for more than two hours. Much of the dialogue, particularly between the two boys, is shouted at full volume and peppered with the kind of mundane profanity and "like, totally"s that most folks their age probably use. There's Lonergan's real gift: He's drawn realistically confused kids, young people whose privilege is disguised with the gritty swagger of lowlifes and street kids.

Director Amanda Kochert's young cast gives vibrant, precise performances that belie their limited stage experience. As the scheming, snot-nosed drug dealer Dennis, Luke Krueger is a frenetic fireplug who dwarfs the stage with rattled monologues about his fucked-up life and promising future. Joey Moore buries Warren's intelligence under a pile of petulance and a gawky yearning that has us rooting for him despite his many misdeeds. And Jillian Keenan lets us laugh at Jessica, who's not sure who she is mama's girl? hip sophisticate? poseur? from moment to moment. Her expertly casual delivery made me wonder how much of her dialogue was ad-libbed, and her occasional outbursts proved she was up to Kochert's frantic pacing.

The set design, credited in the program to "You Wouldn't Believe It," is perfect; anyone who's visited a Hell's Kitchen walk-up where a college-age kid resides will recognize Dennis' cramped, dingy studio apartment. But Benjamin Monrad's unsubtle sound cues are a disaster, and the also-unbilled costuming is all wrong. Where are Jessica's acid-washed jeans, her phony epaulets, her cheesy hair jewelry?

Playgoers who aren't concerned with such details and aren't offended by strong language will be wowed by Stray Cat's excellent production. I left feeling old and out of it, but still moved by Lonergan's sympathy for people, young and old, who sabotage their own lives.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela