This is Our Youth

It’s 1982 on the Upper West Side and over the course of 48 hours we witness a ridiculously easy swipe of large wads of cash, numerous drug deals, selling of childhood dreams and paraphernalia, bribery, abuse, sex and three youngsters who learn that life sucks – even when you’re a rich kid.

This is the world Kenneth Lonergan’s re-creates in his 1996 classic American drama This is Our Youth. Brimming with the “pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism” it is the slow and terrifying realisation that crossing the threshold into adulthood is fraught with broken dreams, eroding idols and an abyss of fear that transfixes those who step out into the world.

Eloquent, deeply moving and almost achingly honest it is glimpse through the old fashioned viewfinder – not just of how things were in 80s America under the reign of Reagan but how things continue to be in that liminal moment between adolescence and adulthood.

Upstairs at the Basement is the perfect venue to host this form of intimate drama.  Christine Urquhart’s cage-like design is not exactly novel but it is appropriate and the sloppy apartment with the necessary 80s gadgets ‘n’ gizmos effectively introduces us to the seedy adolescent cave inhabited by Dennis Ziegler.

Played with panache by Alex MacDonald, Ziegler’s character runs on steroids. He is the demi-god of his own little island in Neverland and believes in the power of beating, berating and bullshitting his way through any situation. He’s the complete antithesis of the lanky unmoored Warren (Ryan Dulieu) who after having been thrown out of home for smoking pot arrives with stolen cash and no plans at Dennis’ apartment.

A series of high-jinks follows as the lads plan to recover the money Warren has spent, ensure Dennis receives his ‘business’ fee for organizing more coke deals and, as if they didn’t have enough to deal with, set up the unlucky-in-love Warren with his crush Jessica (Alex Jordan) while Dennis goes out to get some champagne and organise a few transactions.

It’s a strong male-centric narrative and MacDonald and Dulieu are responsible for propelling the story forward at almost break-neck speed. It’s disappointing that despite MacDonald’s clear prowess as a finely tuned actor he comes across as almost entirely one-note in this performance. Resorting to predominantly shouting (not needed considering the proximity of the audience to the actors) and losing some of the musicality of Lonergan’s rich and highly evocative dialogue through a barrage of constant attacks, his exchanges comes across as mostly verbal diarrhoea with little subtlety. While this is partly to reflect the core impatience that is a trademark quality of Ziegler’s character, this aspect of his persona seems unnecessarily forced.

In contrast, as Warren, the challenge Dulieu faces is to offer highly logic responses (often with little emotional recourse) that hides the multiple masks beneath which he is hiding and he succeeds remarkably well in capturing the slow and somewhat devastating epiphany when he realises his hero is no more than a little frightened boy. His attempts at wooing Jessica are touching and genuine, and together he and Jordan convey the clumsy awkward encounters of a one night stand (and the conversations that precede such dalliances) with suitable feeling.

Jordan, as the slightly unsure girl-on-the-verge-of-becoming-a-woman, is skilful in her portrayal of Jessica but her character is typical of the time, highly reactive to the male figures around her (instead of proactive) and occasionally her character does become slightly wooden.

Together MacDonald, Dulieu and Jordan are a highly committed cast dedicated to giving a compelling performance. There are a few identifying 80s beats and the lighting for the most part is fairly effective and – aside from the American accents (which waver throughout the night) – the character are strong. But running at just over 90 minutes the constant high strung fusillade does tend to get a tad dull.

It is a pity because director Benjamin Henson seems to have replaced the nuances of worlds colliding with three bratty teenagers whose genuine sense of limbo is lost beneath a veneer of unnecessary hyperbole.

#henson #lonergan #thisisouryouth #theatre