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Theater Review

Portrait of Kids as Center of Own Universe

In Kenneth Lonergan's insightful 'This Is Our Youth,' self-indulgent, disturbing behavior can apply to more than just the 'me' generation.

July 02, 2002|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ah, the foibles of youth. Excessive profanity. Flagrant drug use. More excessive profanity. Promiscuous sex. And, for variety's sake, profanity in excess.

From these not exactly unfamiliar ingredients, red-hot playwright Kenneth Lonergan crafted a surprisingly fresh dramatic vision in "This Is Our Youth," his merciless dissection of spoiled Manhattan kids floundering on the brink of adulthood in 1982. Based on the author's post-adolescent milieu and set in the ascendancy of the "me" generation, the play could, intervening decades might suggest, be called "This Was Our Youth," but Lonergan's raw portraits of self-centered indulgence ring recognizably true for previous and subsequent generations.

Santa Barbara-based Ensemble Theater Company's perceptive staging successfully captures the nuances of Lonergan's unique voice, as well as its limitations. Particularly well-rendered is the language Lonergan wields with skill and precision. Even the abundant profanity is strategic, reminiscent on the surface of David Mamet.

One of the few printable words in the play's opening--"Nothing"--is weighted as heavily as it is in "King Lear." In the space of a few economic lines of dialogue, "nothing" defines the activities, accomplishments and ambitions of affluent stoners Dennis (Jamison Haase), the cocky son of a famous painter, and Warren (Sean McHugh), his nerdy childhood friend.

Director Robert Grande-Weiss carefully balances the amusing tone of these budding "Seinfeld"-esque characters' pursuit of nothing with appropriately unsettling dignity at their lack of moral sensibility. The era's rampant negligent parenting has taken its toll: Warren, in retaliation for being thrown out of his parents' home, has stolen $15,000 in cash from his father, which Dennis quickly exploits for a drug deal. Using drugs as bait, the pair also engineer an opportunity for the romantically maladroit Warren to seduce Jessica (Caitlin Ferrara), the girl he's always pined for.

As Warren's genuine feelings for Jessica spark the first glimmer of maturity in him, McHugh's consistently assured performance becomes the centerpiece of the show.

Ferrara smartly delivers some of the play's most insightful comments about the perceived impermanence of self that is central to these kids' aimlessness. Since what they're like now is nothing like who they will be, she reasons, it makes who they are at any given point in time completely dismissible (and, by extension, their behavior unaccountable). With this rationalization for indulgence without consequence, Lonergan eloquently depicts a developmental stage in which identities are donned and abandoned like theatrical costumes--sometimes with devastating emotional consequences.

Least successful is the know-it-all Dennis' relentless harping on Warren's inadequacies in virtually every exchange. Here playwright Lonergan seriously overplays his hand. A few well-placed barbs would sufficiently--and far more believably--establish the relationship.

The narrow focus of the piece and its indeterminate conclusions might limit its broader appeal, but as a disturbing portrait of young people in desperate straits despite affluent upbringings, it hits its targets with deadly accuracy.

*

"This Is Our Youth," Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends July 29. $20 to 32. (805) 962-8606. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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