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updated: 6/26/2014 5:49 AM

Michael Cera steals Steppenwolf's 'Youth'

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  • Michael Cera plays Warren, an aimless, pot-smoking, 19-year-old slouching toward self-awareness in Steppenwolf Theatre's pre-Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth."

      Michael Cera plays Warren, an aimless, pot-smoking, 19-year-old slouching toward self-awareness in Steppenwolf Theatre's pre-Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth."
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Frenemies Warren (Michael Cera, left) and Dennis (Kieran Culkin) sort out a drug transaction in "This is Our Youth," Kenneth Lonergan's compelling examination of privileged slackers, running through July 27 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

      Frenemies Warren (Michael Cera, left) and Dennis (Kieran Culkin) sort out a drug transaction in "This is Our Youth," Kenneth Lonergan's compelling examination of privileged slackers, running through July 27 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) and Warren (Michael Cera) share a tender moment in director Anna D. Shapiro's intimate pre-Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth" for Steppenwolf Theatre.

      Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) and Warren (Michael Cera) share a tender moment in director Anna D. Shapiro's intimate pre-Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth" for Steppenwolf Theatre.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Video: "This is Our Youth" chat

 
 

Those who came of age in the '80s will no doubt recognize the aimless, young adults in "This is Our Youth," Kenneth Lonergan's relentlessly authentic, 1996 coming-of-age drama in a Steppenwolf Theatre revival, which transfers to New York later this summer for its belated Broadway debut.

Some may even recognize themselves, or their former selves, in these snarky, disaffected adolescents slouching toward self-awareness. Unsure of what they want or how to get it, they work their McJobs or slog through college, safe in the financial security their wealthy parents provide.

Initially, "This is Our Youth" comes across as another tale about discontent among the young, educated and privileged. But it's more than that, thanks to the canny Lonergan, whose compassion for these flawed characters doesn't include making excuses for them. Long before he drives the point home, in an admonition from a never-seen parent during the play's closing moments, Lonergan makes it clear these young people -- insecurities, delusions and family dysfunction notwithstanding -- have it better than most. And they know it.

The time is 1982. The place is a top floor studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Designed by Todd Rosenthal, the set features garage sale furnishings, including duct-taped dinette chairs and a hulking 1960s TV console. The bed is a mattress and box spring on the floor. Plastic milk crates and particle board shelves serve as the entertainment unit. Except for the overflowing laundry basket, the room is surprisingly tidy, with small piles of notebooks and magazines located throughout.

The apartment is home to Dennis (Kieran Culkin), a 21-year-old drug dealer, whose artist father and community activist mother pay his rent. An acerbic bully with an inflated ego, Dennis is "frenemies" with Warren ("Juno's" Michael Cera), a gawky, 19-year-old slacker-stoner and frequent target of Dennis' insults.

After his dad roughs him up and throws him out, Warren shows up at Dennis' door with a suitcase full of cherished childhood memorabilia and $15,000 in cash that he stole from his father. Before long, another enters their orbit. She's Warren's crush, fashion student Jessica, played by Internet phenom Tavi Gevinson, founder of Rookie, a website for teenage girls. She and Warren engage in some philosophical sparring, flirting and making out, after which they head off to a posh hotel, on Warren's dad's dime.

Of course things rarely go as planned, even for the well-off. That's true in this telling snapshot, mindfully composed by director Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County"). Intimate, authentic and unsentimental, Shapiro's production boasts a young, charismatic, entirely genuine cast.

Culkin brings a manic, self-absorption to the know-it-all Dennis, whose every put-down reflects his own insecurities. The winsome Gevinson, a 2014 high school graduate, is both vulnerable and purposeful as Jessica, a likable fashionista who expresses her opinions with the gusto of a college freshman who has spent a few late nights trading life philosophies with her dorm mates.

But "This is Our Youth" is Cera's show to steal. And he steals it most impressively, with his brilliantly expressionless, compellingly deadpan performance. For all his awkwardness and insecurity, Cera's seemingly dim man-child is more self-aware than his friends. Watching that knowledge sink in -- as he learns some hard lessons about love, friendship and his own good fortune -- just about breaks your heart.

Warren isn't an adult, not yet. But he's on his way. And that's saying something.

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