The problem with a high school diploma is that it doesn't come with a roadmap. Consequently, you have a lot of flailing youth like the hapless, rudderless trio of 19-year-olds careening around the Upper West Side of 1982 in This Is Our Youth, the 1996 Kenneth Lonergan comedy which found a home Sept. 11 at the Cort Theatre.
A small human cavalcade is played out in the meagerly-appointed pad that the affluent parents of Dennis Ziegler (Kieran Culkin) provided for him when he thankfully moved out of the house. Enter his best friend, Warren Staub (Michael Cera), suitcase in hand. "What's with the suitcase?" asks Dennis in lieu of "Hello."
As this classically inhospitable host instantly sensed, Warren has been kicked out of his equally comfy nest by his lingerie-tycoon dad. The suitcase contains his cherished toy collectibles and "the proceeds of my unhappy childhood" (i.e., $15,000 stolen from Daddy as a parting gesture). Dennis sees the windfall as a chance to cut a quick and very lucrative cocaine deal in the neighborhood; Warren sees it as a chance to make-out big time with a newly forming girlfriend (Tavi Gevinson) at the Plaza Hotel.
Round and round and down and down they go until Warren, a slacker in freefall, develops traction and spine to stop the abuse being hurled on him from all sides. As titles go, This Is Our Youth has ironic import. "I don't remember exactly what made me think of that title," Lonergan said, "but the idea of it was this is what they do with their youth, which is not the greatest thing to do with it. They deposit it in these crazy, druggy, dead-end paths, and that's where they're dumping their youth."
The title can also be taken as a kind of time capsule for the lost youth of that particular time. "It's my youth. That's what I was doing. I was in that room when I was that age. Fortunately, I survived. Not everyone I know did. That's just luck.
"Matthew Broderick was part of my group of friends from high school who then stayed friends after high school, and that's the group of friends that these characters are based on, but neither Matthew nor I — or any of the other guys specifically — appear in the show. The characters are composites of friends that I had at the time. I gave one character another guy's father, and I gave him another guy's history, and I changed everything around when it seemed organic for the single character."
Lonergan wears his angst easily but did seem perilously close to smiling on opening night. "It was kind of a perfect night. The performance was terrific. The audience was incredibly responsive. Renee Fleming was there. What else could you want?
"It was nice to see This Is Our Youth working in that big space with a full house. Sometimes opening night audiences are so eager to be on your side that they get a little bit out of sync, like they laugh before the jokes sometimes. They're so keen to be friendly, and this audience was super friendly, but I thought that they were very much in sync with the show and they gave the actors really nice support."
Two-thirds of the original Off-Broadway cast, Mark Ruffalo and Josh Hamilton, were in that number, cheering the revival on. "I only saw them for a second afterwards, and there were lots of tears and stuff. Mark surprised me. He told me he wasn't going to be here, but he was tricking me. I wish Missy Yager could have been here, but she's got her twins in California. It was really touching to see the guys here because they so fully embodied those characters themselves that there's no way for them to feel anything but good, seeing it done so beautifully again in a very different way."
The current cast clearly hit the right notes with Lonergan. "They're so alive and sensitive to each other. Michael's character is in so much pain. He doesn't push at all. He just realizes, as the layers peel off, how much trouble he's in. He's incredibly intelligent and funny. I guess that's true of all of them. Kieran is Mr. Hotshot, but you can just see the foundation falling away from his support of the position he's in. "I still feel I have an instinctive understanding of how they are and what they're doing with each other and to each other and in spite of each other, but I feel a little less clear about what the internal mechanism is. When we were in rehearsals, I couldn't quite explain why they were behaving the way they were. I could still have the feel for it, but I didn't quite have the answers anymore. I think that's a function of me being so much older than they are now. I still feel like I know what their basic lines of behavior and action are, but you leave the specific iterations of that to the actors and to the director. Otherwise, you might as well be a novelist."
The director in this case is Anna D. Shapiro, a Tony winner for August: Osage County, who tried the play out in the round at Chicago's Steppenwolf. Counting these three performances and the three earlier this year in Of Mice and Men, she has directed 16 Broadway debuts in her four shows on the Main Stem. One won a Tony (Deanna Dunagan), and two others (Yul Vazquez and Chris O'Dowd) got Tony nominations.
And she'll get another debut in before season's end: Larry David in Fish in the Dark, which will play the Cort this winter. "I get about two and a half weeks to rest because we're going to work on the script," she announced perkily. "Obviously, you do rewrites during the rehearsal process, but Larry's in the play, playing the lead part, so we're going to do work before we get in. I don't want him to be distracted.
"It's about what happens to a family when the patriarch dies, which is kind of a familiar trope for me. Here, it's a pretty different tone [from August: Osage County]."
She was plainly pleased with her new batch of award-contenders. "They're very well suited for the parts they're playing, so it was more about shaping. It was more of a conversation with them, because they all brought so much to what they were doing, so it was really joyful in that way. They really have to put themselves out there. They have to be open and reveal themselves. All three of them are really brave that way.
"I really love Kenny's play. I've always loved Kenny's play. I really wanted to do it justice. I think that it exists in the memory of people who saw it. It's a seminal performance for some people. I wanted to make sure that we honored that but also revisit it and reframe it for this generation who are seeing it for the first time." Coming from migrant works of the Depression to trust-fund slackers of the '80s would make most directors' head swim, but Shapiro seems to take it in her stride. "I think the context is always, obviously, real important. We're a product of the moment we're in and certainly the time we're in, but what you have to understand about a play is its essential conflict and what the essential problem is. Once you understand that and you find yourself interested in exploring that, the other stuff sorta comes along. I don't like to look at the world separate from the people that are in it. I just start with the problem, and where they are runs alongside it."
And the problem in This Is Our Youth? "I think that this show is about the first time in your life where you ask yourself, 'Why am I behaving this way? Is what I'm doing actually my prison? Have I created a prison around myself that's related to who I'm with?' I think we continue to ask those questions forever. Two of them are wondering in a way that will allow them to change, and one is digging his heels in."
Culkin comes by his Broadway debut honorably, being the project's prime mover. He played Warren 12 years ago and has been aching to play the abusive alpha-male Dennis ever since. It was he who slipped Cera a copy of the play when they were filming "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" four years ago, and they tried it out in Sydney.
"When I read it, yeah, I thought it was something I could play," Cera admitted. "Kieran said he was trying to get this to happen again, with him playing the other role, so, when I read it, that's the way I envisioned it. I thought it would be fun.
"I liked the story of the character — his arc, what he gains and what he loses in the show. I liked that the character is revealed very slowly in the play. You watch the first 40 minutes and you write him off, but the further you go, the more you realize, 'I don't know this guy. Never met someone like this.' He's actually got a lot more going on than you initially think. The more he understands how badly he allowed people around him to treat him — the really strong relationship in his life, his father and his best friend — the more he changes. Anna said something really beautiful in rehearsals. She said, 'Warren's father — and Dennis — are probably very similar types: very strong personality types that need to make you smaller. The father has a really good excuse, but Dennis is just a shallow kid. Ultimately, it's really up to Warren to take some responsibility."
Since Cera seems terminally relaxed, he gives the impression of having coasted through his opening night on Broadway without breaking a sweat. "I didn't have much of a concept about that. For me, the more nerve-wracking stuff was going out in front of the audience for the first time in previews. Tonight I guess I was conscious of everyone I knew in the audience and to the event of the evening. I had a lot of people I love here — my mom, my manager, my girlfriend, agents, friends, friends of my mom's. That's what distinguished it from any other night for me." Culkin has a unique perspective on the play, having played both roles. "I also read this play thousands of times," he cheerfully confessed. "I carry it around with me like it's my favorite book. I have the same copy. My copy is ripped in six different sections, but I still have it in my dressing room, and it's getting even more worn now. But I take it home every night and read it in bed. I read it all the time.
"Whatever I did 12 years ago playing Warren, I don't think I was on the right track. I don't think I played it right so, as much as I had a really great time in it and found a lot of good stuff in it, I don't think I was in the place I was supposed to be."
The pit-bull part seems a better fit for him. "I don't consider myself a very angry person. I don't go home and have these outbursts, but I know people who get very, very angry and can just flip out like the flick of a switch. When it's not pointed directly at you — even if it's pointed at the person right next to you — it can be pretty funny because this guy has just lost control of himself. They're people — one I know well — who don't even know what they're going to say. They'll start a sentence, and know by the end of this they'll figure out what their point is, and whatever it is it's totally right. I think he does that a lot, like 'Don't start with me, Warren, because...'"
Gevinson, a high school graduate and fashion blogger who is making her stage acting debut in addition to her Broadway debut (!), is actually playing an older woman here — she's 18 — but she behaves like a seasoned veteran. "I like when you read the role on the page, she seems really cold, and it was really nice finding her anxiety and finding her vulnerability. It's like if she would give herself a chance, she could be really charming and witty, but she keeps sabotaging herself. It comes out of a good place, I think. She just really wants to connect with other people."
So, too, does the newbie actress. "I related to the characters. I knew that I cared about them. I knew that everything that they go through is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about — all these strange firsts that you experience when you're this age. And, for me, that felt like enough. When I was a kid, I did theatre camp and stuff like that, and then I kinda stopped when I got to high school, and then I revisited it for this, so I think I have some of the muscles in me to feel present. But it was mostly just wanting to find a way to be a part of telling the story."