“Maybe this will solve everything,” asserts one of the characters midway though This is Our Youth, and it’s a good summary of the adolescent angst and sheer stupidity of privileged youth portrayed in Kenneth Lonergan’s play, set in the Reagan years and the first offering of the season at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. And it’s brilliant: directed with a deft hand by Katherine M. Carter and brought to life with tremendous energy and physicality by Michael Goldsmith, John Evans Reese, and Ruby Wolf.
These actors inhabit the full size of their characters and wring every possible ounce of nuance out of people who aren’t nearly as nuanced as they’d like to think. The set is the New York apartment of Dennis Ziegler (Goldsmith), a low-level drug dealer and stoner, the son of a famous painter who wants nothing to do with him. His friend—and I use the term loosely—is Warren Staub, insecure and eager to please, who’s been kicked out of his father’s home and has retaliated by stealing $15,000 in cash from “arguably the most dangerous lingerie manufacturer in the world.”
And that is essentially the plot. Lonergan’s gift is never the story, it’s the characters, and his fast-paced self-absorbed show-off-the-vocabulary dialogue is priceless, particularly in the hands of actors whose timing is so consistently spot-on. The interplay of narcissism and insecurity in Dennis’ monologues in particular—Lonergan scripted every “um” and “like” and “whatever”—is breathtaking to listen to, and Goldsmith’s machine-gun delivery is impeccable.
While it’s clear that Dennis is the alpha in the relationship, it’s Warren the play focuses on. He seems at first to be Dennis’ punching-bag, in particular when it comes to girls, as Dennis sneers about breaking “this stupefying losing streak of yours.” But once Dennis has mercifully taken himself off on a drug-purchasing errand and Jessica (Wolf) arrives at the apartment, Warren’s character becomes endearing and his self-revelations touching. When Jessica lights up, he tries on the kind of social line he’s clearly heard from adults: “I never really got into the smoking scene—but I’ve heard great things about it.”
Reese’s Warren comes into his own with Dennis out of the way. His manic pacing, jumping around, and adolescent-awkward sense of his body disappears, and he becomes more comfortable, more articulate, and more thoughtful talking with Jessica. Their brief dancing scene is both fun and lovely, and the audience suddenly really wants everything to turn out okay for Warren.
Will it? Who knows? Lonergan’s take is that life isn’t revealing anything other than more of the same, despite the grandiose dreams he gives Dennis, who (in true adolescent fashion) asserts that he has only to try his hand at any difficult career to “totally” own it.
Wolf gets somewhat short shrift from Lonergan; Jessica’s lines and character aren’t as fully developed and her role is essentially a foil to the others. This probably wasn’t accidental—women as women didn’t exactly have starring roles in Reagan’s America—but audiences who have seen Wolf as Juliet and Sally Bowles know she could have taken on a meatier role. Still, she imbues the insecure art student with subtlety and shading: her Jessica transcends awkward-girl-meeting-awkward-boy and delivers some of the play’s most message-laden dialogue with more lightness than Lonergan deserves. “What you’re like right now isn’t what you’re going to be like,” she argues earnestly. “You’ll be a completely different person.” And, sadly, this all implies there will be “huge swaths of time that didn’t matter at all.”
Carter’s extraordinary gift here is in taking these kids to the top without ever pushing them over it. They’re self-absorbed, insecure, noisy, angry, and obnoxious—but the audience is still rooting for them to be okay in the end, a bit of a tour de force on the director’s part.
And the set design is truly a work of art in itself. From the cans of Tab taken from the fridge to the long, long cord on the princess phone, from the unmade-boy-bed consisting of mattresses thrown on the floor to the treble locks on the door, this apartment is perfection. Bravo to scenic designer Edward T. Morris.
This is a terrific start to what is looking like a tremendous season at WHAT. While This is Our Youth isn’t an obvious fit for a Cape Cod demographic, it’s a stunningly right choice by executive director Christopher Ostrom and sure to entertain.
Photo Credit: Michael and Suz Karchmer