Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 46
 
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Music/Theater

SEX? ROMANCE? TRUE LOVE?: Warren (Matt Seely) and Jessica (LindseyRose Aguero-Sinclair), 19-year-old children of privilege in 1980s Manhattan, struggle to escape the pitfalls of the adult world in Theatre Intime’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,”playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 20.

“This Is Our Youth” Looks Back With Humor, Despair and Affection: Over-Privileged, Disaffected, Drugged-Out 1980s Urban Pre-Adults

—Donald Gilpin

Holden Caulfield was J.D Salinger’s 1950s version in The Catcher in the Rye. Chris McCandless was Jon Krakauer’s non-fictional 1990s version in Into the Wild. Dennis and Warren, in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth (1996), playing at Theatre Intime for one more weekend, are young men in trouble.

Living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they defy, yet depend on, the affluence of their successful parents. They are immature college drop-outs, age 21 and 19 respectively, struggling with their desire to hold onto their childhood, yet also to grow up, live independently and find meaning, love, and values amidst the drug-centered world their lives have fallen into.

Holden ended up in a mental institution. McCandless turned his back on society and died in the wilds of Alaska. Dennis and Warren, at the end of Mr. Lonergan’s moving and funny comic drama, hope for something better.

Jessica, Warren’s love interest, attempts, in characteristic vernacular, to provide Warren with some perspective on this recently acknowledged, post adolescent, pre-adult stage of human development: “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 burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be.”

The setting, Dennis’ sordid, messy, one-room apartment (paid for by his parents who are happy to have him out of the house), and the plot (focusing on $15,000 Warren has stolen from his father and the attempts of Dennis and Warren to find sex or romance and to make a deal that will enable them to return the money to Warren’s father before they suffer the consequences of their crime) sound a bit drab, but this Theatre Intime production brings the three distressed youths to life with loving detail and warm humor. Amidst the harshness of language, setting and action, these three characters ring true to life and, to varying degrees, win the audience’s genuine sympathy.

Theatre Intime’s production of “This Is Our Youth” runs for one more weekend, Thursday, November 18, through Saturday, November 20, with performances at 8 p.m. on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for information.

A middle-aged parent and her associates in the row behind me did leave at intermission. “This is my worst nightmare,” she exclaimed. “Let’s go.” Her concerns — with the foul language, with the subject matter, with the bitter satire, with the distressing dilemma of these man-children who can’t, or won’t, grow up, and the young women who are attracted to them— are understandable, but the vast majority of the audience stayed, highly amused, entertained, and engaged in the troubled lives of the three protagonists.

The script is a strong one, nominated for a Drama Desk Award for best play of 1996, and Mr. Lonergan’s ear for dialogue is sensitive and sure. A New York playwright and screen writer — Analyze This (1999), You Can Count on Me (2000) and co-author of Gangs of New York (2002), Mr. Lonergan has vividly created here three intriguing characters and the peculiar world they inhabit.

But even more important to the success of this production is the talented, highly committed, undergraduate cast under the direction of Princeton University junior Chris Ghaffari. Mr. Ghaffari, in his program note, writes about his cast’s affinity for these characters, who, though living a quarter century ago and apart from the college world, are of similar ages and partake in similar worlds of privilege. It is rare that Intime undergraduate performers play actors their own ages. This cast’s understanding of and dedication to these characters brings an exciting level of realism and enthusiastic involvement to the show that more than compensated for some technical glitches — a broken bed, an errant sound cue — last Saturday night.

Matt Seely as Warren, the central character here, is utterly believable from start to finish of this two-hour-and-twenty-minute production. In his idolization of the older, more hard-edged Dennis; in his youthful vulnerability as he tries to talk tough about his father’s abuses and the tragic death of an older sister; in his ill-fated schemes to deal with the money he has stolen from his father; in his attachment to the memorabilia of his youth — action figures, record albums, a vintage toaster, and a collector’s item baseball hat — all of which he symbolically carries around in a suitcase; and, most strikingly, in his touching attempts at courtship of Jessica (LindseyRose Aguero-Sinclair).

Their “seduction” scene at the end of act one, which culminates in the two of them heading out to engage a room at the Plaza Hotel, is the happiest and most effective moment in the play — touching, funny and vibrantly, convincingly brought to life. Ms. Aguero-Sinclair’s Jessica, adorned in a skin-tight, short purple dress, with trendy black boots and long blond ringlets, is all decked out for her “date.” She creates a winning combination of teen-age innocence and New York City smart-rich-girl savvy. It is easy to understand these two characters’ attraction to each other, and to watch them dance — figuratively then literally — as they tentatively approach each other, both in search of something meaningful and important to help shore up the meaninglessness of their lives, is heartwarming, funny, and dramatically satisfying.

As Dennis, the senior and most experienced member of the trio, Dan Yawitz, is well cast and appropriately full of passionate intensity and anger. This character, charismatic, a role model for his younger associates, a seasoned drug dealer, a bully at times and subject to extreme fits of anger, is less sympathetic than his younger counterparts. Alienated from his famous artist father and social worker mother, Dennis, trapped like the others between youth and some sort of viable adulthood, is the least likely of the three to escape the self-destructive life of drugs and dissipation. Mr. Yawitz, mostly credible in this challenging role, does, however, need more variation in tone — a bit less relentless, over-the-top anger, for example — to make us care about and thoroughly believe this character.

Set design by Mr. Ghaffari and Abby Stewart effectively represents Dennis’ simple one-room apartment, complete with random clothing, sports equipment, and liquor and beer bottles strewn about — all a reflection of the disorder, decadence, and immaturity of the post-adolescent, pre-adult male residents.

“What kind of world do you think I’m living in?” Warren asks his angry father over the phone near the end of the play, as the young man prepares to face the miserable consequences of a series of failures and a future with no appealing options. It’s a good question, and one that this seriously funny play and its fervent, able performers help us all to consider, whether the characters and their actions on stage resemble the particularities of “our youth” or not.

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