Twelve years ago Kieran Culkin appeared in a West End revival of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. And he never got the show out of his system. "I can't articulate it exactly," says the actor, whose stage credits include an Obie-winning performance in After Ashley at the Vineyard Theatre. "The only thing I can compare it to is when you love somebody. It's hard to explain why you do, you just connect."
In 2012 — alongside screen actor Michael Cera ("Superbad," "Juno"), making his professional stage debut — Culkin returned to the play, this time as the stunted, self-centered Dennis in Sydney. This summer the two teamed up again at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, under the direction of Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County). That production arrives at Broadway's Cort Theatre for a limited run, opening Sept. 11.
Set in New York in 1982, This Is Our Youth follows three young people stumbling toward adulthood: Dennis, the alpha male whose bark is becoming as laughable as his bite; wimpish Warren, who's beginning to grasp the imbalance of his friendship with Dennis; and Jessica — played by Broadway newcomer, Tavi Gevinson, well-known to the well-heeled crowd as the teen fashion prodigy of RookieMag.com — the object of Warren's affection, a girl who's not quite out of the woods of adolescence herself.
In past productions, Culkin played the hapless Warren. "But for some reason," he says, "I couldn't click with that part anymore. It took a lot to convince Kenny that I could play Dennis. But it was like, I have to do this." Fully invested in his new role, Culkin notes of his character, "He needs Warren to tell him how amazing he is and reassure him at every step. This guy is just completely incapable of growing up." Not only that, but in his fear of abandonment, he treats Warren as if he's the man who's really lost, ripping into him at every opportunity. "I've had friendships that have fallen apart for reasons not so dissimilar from this," says Cera. "It gets to a point where you don't want to play anymore. When there's an imbalance in a friendship, it can only last so long, unless you are both going to grow together, and not so many people are capable of that. I feel really bad for Dennis at the end of the show."
"I don't think he's a very good guy, but I can totally justify everything he does," says Culkin. "Even his verbal abuse. It's horrible. But he thinks he's being honest or he thinks he's helping. I would not hang out with a guy like Dennis."
"I find most characters sympathetic," offers Cera. "I was watching Of Mice and Men, which Anna did in New York, and there's the baddie, Curley, the boss' son. He's just an ass. But I get him. He's a privileged piece of crap who's used to bullying people and he's kind of sad. I can see playing a character like that and making it make sense, and having fun being a gross ass, if you understand where it's coming from."
Both actors — who appeared together in the film "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" — are thrilled with the opportunity to tackle the piece again. "We only had two weeks in Australia," notes Cera. "I feel like I hardly got a chance to understand what I was doing, or what I should be doing with the character. I thought this would really be a good way to find more in the show and just get better at performing live."
And both actors have enjoyed gaining new insights from Shapiro into how to play the piece. "I feel I know the show inside and out, so I thought there really wasn't that much more I could get from it," says Culkin. "But on pretty much an hourly basis, Anna was flushing out new stuff. Stuff I thought I understood, but she knew how to articulate really well, and sometimes [had] new ideas I really hadn't considered before, that make the scenes make more sense."
Laughing, Cera says, "When Tavi first comes in, I greet her at the door and there's this weird exchange we have, just kind of a failure. And Anna said something that just made me feel so unimaginative as an actor. She said, 'You're both nervous, but you can't play that. If you're nervous, you're actively trying to mask that fact.' And it was like, why would I ever think you could just play what was obviously the subtext? She just sorta put a new lens on that and gave me a new awareness of what was happening." And a lot happens in this tight three-hander. "I think by the end of the play," says Cera, "you can feel very sad for all of the characters — for what they've gone through, and where they've ended up and where they are going."