This is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan’s razor-sharp comedy-drama about three unsettled privileged youngsters living in Manhattan, was first staged in 1996 so it’s appropriate that its 18th birthday should be marked with the ultimate benediction for any play—its first Broadway production.
Indeed, the production marks 51-year-old Lonergan’s first time on the Great White Way despite the writer having received two Oscar scriptwriting nominations, for You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York. The production at the Cort Theater, starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson, also marks the culmination of a long crusade for Lonergan to get one of the most acclaimed plays of its era to Broadway. Unlike the comedic phenomenons Juno and Superbad, which shot Cera to stardom, This Is Our Youth has been the slowest of burners.
The play, set in 1982, depicts the struggles of three privileged slackers to come to terms with impending adulthood. Warren (Cera) has stolen $15,000 from his father, which captures the imagination of his intimidating drug-dealing friend Dennis (Culkin). Heightening his angst, Warren pines for precocious Jessica (Gevinson).
The production comes to New York from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. It’s produced by film and theater powerhouse Scott Rudin and directed by Anna D. Shapiro, who recently commandeered James Franco’s Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men.
This Is Our Youth is as painful and winning as theatrical experiences get and Lonergan, sensitive and self-effacing even by the standards of New York playwrights, does not hide that its journey to Broadway has been marked by a combination of torment and elation. “I’ve been looking for a production on Broadway for a while now,” he says. “There have been different attempts to do it. The catalyst was Anna Shapiro agreeing to direct it. That propelled it into life.”
Lonergan grew up on the Upper West Side and based This Is Our Youth on the experiences of his friends and himself. The play first came to him in a dream, he recalls. “It’s one of the easier plays I’ve written,” he says. “I wrote the first act very quickly and then got stuck between Act 1 and Act 2 for about two months. I think I wrote the whole first draft in nine months and then it took me another nine months to get it 20 percent better.”
This Is Our Youth received two off-Broadway productions in 1996 and 1998, both featuring Mark Ruffalo and Missy Yager. Acclaim ensued (then-New York magazine critic John Simon called it “unforgettable”) but no Broadway transfer.
The show got a new lease of life in 2002 when two young British producers, Anna Waterhouse and Claire Gregory, spotted the play’s potential and brought it to London with a revolving cast of Young Hollywood appearing in four consecutive productions.
Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Casey Affleck, Colin Hanks, Hayden Christensen, Anna Paquin, and Summer Phoenix were among those who acted in This Is Our Youth at the Garrick Theatre, in the heart of the West End, establishing it as one of the most successful and seamless alliances of stage work and star power to have ever appeared on either side of the Atlantic.
A generation of young Londoners, hypnotized by such a compelling account of the tribulations that accompany the transition to becoming a mature adult, paid repeated trips to the show. I was one of them. (Another was the British socialite and photographer Tamara Beckwith, who now resides in New York.)
Things could have been even starrier. Leonardo DiCaprio, who then had just acted in Gangs of New York, co-scripted by Lonergan, almost had a youthful London experience. “We had lots of conversations where we both said, ‘We should really do the play together, man!’ and it never happened,” Lonergan recalls.
One of those who acted in London was Kieran Culkin, who has now appeared in the play in three continents (he and Cera also did This Is Our Youth in the Sydney Opera House in 2012). In the West End he played Warren and now he plays Dennis. “I enjoyed the hell out of it but I didn’t feel like I got to do it justice,” Culkin says. “I didn’t feel like I came close to how it’s supposed to be. I don’t know that anybody can come close to as good as this is on the page but we’re going to do our best.”
Culkin, 32—the younger brother of Macaulay Culkin, who himself endured a thorny transition into adulthood—is playing a 21-year-old, which doesn’t worry Lonergan. “He’s very immature—just a big baby!” Lonergan says. “It will be years before he’s too old for this part!”
Integral to the production’s fate on Broadway will be whether it can tap into the youth demographic that is put off by the prohibitive cost of entering the Great White Way (though it has a rush policy of $35 for theatergoers under 30). After all, Gevinson, a writer and blogger, as well as an actress, who was born six months before This Is Our Youth opened off-Broadway, has 263,000 followers on Twitter; This Is Our Youth’s Twitter account has under 1,800 followers. “It was nice to see so many young people in the theater when it was in London,” reflects Lonergan, “to see a play with people their own age or thereabouts. I loved that.”
Time will tell whether Broadway’s staple tribe of older theatergoers will be disinclined to check out the antics of drug-addled losers, though Lonergan bristles at my term. “I think the term ‘loser’ is a misnomer,” he says. “Even when people like the play, they sometimes say ‘But who cares? They’re all spoilt.’ They’re often described as spoilt because they’re over-privileged. I don’t know where privilege is or what the median income is where you’re allowed to have problems or not. Warren’s sister is murdered, his mother is mentally unstable, his father beats him up, his father and he have this hideous, contentious relationship, he’s a de facto drug addict.
“He’s got a lot of problems. Yes there’s a financial safety net for him that doesn’t exist for other people but he’s smart enough to know that too. The Warren character, who might be considered to be a loser, is making this tremendous effort every day to stay on his feet in the face of these repeated blows that he gets.”
Lonergan has endured a creatively brutal time since the success of This Is Our Youth. He followed it with acclaimed plays Lobby Hero and The Waverley Gallery, but his 2009 play, The Starry Messenger, starring Matthew Broderick, was plagued by problems and never made it to Broadway and his subsequent show Medieval Play received less-than stellar reviews. Margaret, his directorial follow-up to his debut film You Can Count on Me, was mired in legal trouble and creative tension over the final cut, and took six years to make it to the screen.
It’s evident therefore that Lonergan is relishing the chance to revisit his former critical glory. “One nice thing about This Is Our Youth not being a new play is that I feel the play is what it is,” he says. “If the show does not do well, I will not know why and have nothing to say about why it happened because I know Scott’s going to support the show. I feel I did my work 18 years ago!”
He adds: “Of course everyone worries about that [Broadway]. You want everything to be a success and you want people to like what you do. I don’t think it’s possible to have a better chance of that happening with this particular producer and with this particular show. What they’re doing is wonderful and if people don’t respond, I’ll be flummoxed as to why.”