Oct 6, 2021

Lonergan, Off Again

Major Matt Mason.

In July of 2012, my friend and fellow blogger Isaac Butler asked me write a piece about Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth
for an "Adolescence Issue" of his blog Parabasis. One sticking point: I'd never seen it, though not for lack of trying. I discovered in my research for the piece that despite the splash it made Off-Broadway in 1998, it had been remarkably scarce on U.S. stages. (In addition to reading the script, I was able to catch an audio recording of the original cast doing the play.) I spun Youth's relative onstage scarcity, not to mention a lack of new work from its writer, into a whole thesis about Lonergan having "gone silent"—a take I was happy to see quickly demolished by the the release of the full cut of his contested film Margaret, the long-overdue Broadway bow of This Is Our Youth in 2014, the triumph of his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea, and the devastatingly great 2018 Broadway run of The Waverly Gallery.

That immediately dated take aside, I think the rest of my piece, placing This Is Our Youth in the context of both when it was written and when it was set, holds up and is worth having out in the world (now that Isaac's blog is password-protected). I've republished it below, with Isaac's blessing, including his intro. This hit the World Wide Web on Aug. 2, 2012.

Whether or not we've got the longest adolescence in the history of the world, we sure do keep returning to narratives about it all the time. Whether or not this is a good thing is a debate I'm all for having, but for the purposes of this issue, I suppose I'm a little more interested in what we say with these narratives. We have two pieces on that very subject. The first, from Rob Weinert-Kendt, focuses on Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth," one of my favorite plays. —Isaac Butler 

What does it say about my generation that its putative voice—the playwright who once seemed like he might be the John Osborne, the Arthur Miller, possibly the Lanford Wilson of Generation X—has all but gone silent? True, few artists worth a damn would ever claim the mantle of generational spokesman, and dramatists—generally a high-minded and thin-skinned lot, at once self-doubting and self-important—probably least of all. But even in his heyday around the turn of the millennium, Kenneth Lonergan seemed singularly uninterested in speaking for anyone, and since then, with just two Off-Broadway plays since 2001, in speaking much at all (it was reassuring, if painful, to read that he's been partly waylaid in the interim by an Herculean struggle to get a single film completed).

Of course, in this obstinacy to be cornered or to wear a label, even that of “working playwright,” Lonergan may be the quintessential Gen-Xer: unpinnable, unmarketable, hushed into reflexive passivity by the solipsism and apparent hypocrisy of the Boomers who came before. It's a shame, though, because his signature works—the film You Can Count On Me, the plays Lobby Hero and This Is Our Youth—in fact did speak, in their halting, layered, ironic, exquisitely observed way, of and for a generation marked by lowered expectations, thoroughgoing mistrust balanced by a private and often blurry idealism, and inconspicuous consumption. My people.

I lived on the West Coast until 2005, where I narrowly missed a chance to stumble upon Lonergan in his creative infancy: In 1993, a one-act called Betrayed by Everyone was first staged at the tiny Met Theater in Hollywood, starring a young up-and-comer from the local theater scene named Mark Ruffalo. It wasn’t until 1996, when an expanded version of that one-act, now with the portentous title This Is Our Youth and still starring Ruffalo, garnered rave reviews at New York’s INTAR Theatre, that Lonergan’s name came into my consciousness. I took a rooting interest in it based on Ruffalo's participation; by then he was something of an L.A. theater star, having memorably starred in plays by local hero Justin Tanner; I was happy to hear that his performance as Warren Straub, a troubled but lovable pothead teen, in Lonergan’s play was earning him comparisons to a young Marlon Brando. As for the play, it was reportedly little short of an annunciation: Here, those who’d seen it either said or implied, might be the next Great American Play, or at the very least the next Great American Playwright.

It was brought back again in 1998 by Second Stage with the same cast, but I never ended up seeing it—because, in fact, productions of this Great American Play have been startlingly thin on the ground, particularly compared to Lonergan’s widely performed 2001 play Lobby Hero, which I managed to see twice in just a few years in Southern California (and which my colleague Jason Zinoman has called not only the better play but the best American play of the 2000s). This Is Our Youth has had three runs at regional LORT houses: at Steppenwolf in 1999, at Philadelphia Theater Company in 2001, and at St. Louis Rep in 2005; and there has been no shortage of small-theater regional productions over the years (Frisco in 2002, Chicago in 2005 and 2011, Seattle in 2008). But to date, to my knowledge This Is Our Youth has never been professionally staged in Los Angeles, even by a 99-seat theater, as even Tracy Letts' Bug and Killer Joe have been (Youth was recently audio-recorded in Santa Monica with the original cast by L.A. TheatreWorks, which is how I eventually at last heard it). Its only commercial revivals thus far have been a starry West End run in 2002 and another similarly starry one early this year in Australia. That’s right—the play purported to define a generation has played in freaking Sydney, Australia, with American film stars in it—but hasn't yet been revived in New York or even staged in L.A. What’s wrong with this picture?

I don’t have an answer; over the years I’ve chalked up the relative scarcity of This Is Our Youth to something perverse or retiring in Lonergan himself—an advanced case of congenital Gen-X diffidence. That’s almost certainly unfair; the vagaries of theater production, particularly newish-play revivals, are surely more punishing and capricious than I can imagine. So I send hopeful vibes in the direction of Second Stage, which has lately become a home for just this kind of recent-landmark revival (Howard Korder's Boys' Life in 2008, Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive last year, next season Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years), and toward the Signature Theatre, where Lonergan recently staged his latest lark, Medieval Play, which would make a promising site for a Youth revival, as it was last year for another landmark ’90s work, Angels in America.

In fact, reading This Is Our Youth again recently, I was struck by its only similarity to Angels: They're both Clinton-era plays about the Reagan-Bush ’80s, and that quality of recent hindsight is a defining (you might uncharitably say limiting) element of both. Of course, that’s where any similarities with Angels end, and not just in terms of scale—This Is Our Youth is a three-character, single-set, essentially-real-time two-acter, while Angels is—well, Angels. Lonergan’s play is also the clear progenitor of a divergent strain in American playwriting; while Kushner's thematic and formal ambition could be seen as clearing the path for the likes of Sarah Ruhl, Rajiv Joseph and Katori Hall, Lonergan's fine-grained neo-naturalism has clear heirs in Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, and Stephen Belber.

And if Kushner's prescient epic presaged both the right-wing retrenchment of the Bush II years and the velvet revolution in gay rights (and, it might even be argued, helped set the table for our culture's current Mormon moment), Lonergan's aimless-stoner portraiture seemingly had no such culture-wide reverberations. But it is no less a reflection of its ambivalent age; possibly moreso, because by keeping his scope narrow and his focus intense, Lonergan captures more of the texture of life as it was lived in the hangover-morning-in-America of the early '80s—1982, to be precise, the year Gay Mens’ Health Crisis was founded to address a troubling new “gay cancer” and Nancy Reagan started telling kids to “just say no” to drugs.

Indeed, it was a time when the Reagan “revolution” was making headlines but had barely begun to sink in. This accounts for some of This Is Our Youth's patina of innocence; these young folks have barely an inkling what's ahead for them, both personally and culturally. But apart from the play's stray references to the nation’s new president, most of them hostile or incredulous, there’s writing on the wall of This Is Our Youth if you know where to look: For one thing, the Upper West Side where Dennis Ziegler and Warren Straub strut like slacker princes, toking and fretting in the limbo between high school and the next indeterminate step, had in the early ’80s only fairly recently been gentrified, in the first wave of what would become the Giuliani/Bloomberg turnaround—which would in turn become an emblem of the way ascendant conservative ideas about wealth, property, and class seemed to trump (yes, I use the term advisedly) old party lines.

After all, Clinton Democrats—even the reluctant, Nation-reading lefties who thought he was a bit of redneck and would have preferred to vote for his wife—proved to be among the city’s most fervent gentrifiers, and many fit the profile of This Is Our Youth’s offstage parents. As Jessica Goldman, the brittle, argumentative 19-year-old who’s clearly into Dennis but settles, not entirely unhappily, for Warren, describes them, “kids from the Sixties who were so righteous about changing the face of civilization, and then the minute they got older they were all like, ‘Actually, you know what? Maybe I’ll just be a lawyer.’ ” The yuppie sellout was a popular trope at the time, and it had a lot of truth in it. But not only does Warren, with preternatural old-soul circumspection, seem skeptical that people change as much as Jessica imagines they do; Lonergan is also subtly sympathetic to those offstage parents, not least because he implicates us into feeling parentally protective toward the play’s confused teen trio.

The play’s final big speech, for example, puts the struggles of Warren’s dad—a self-made lingerie manufacturer whose wealth hasn’t been enough to shield him from tragedy and loneliness, any more than the $15,000 in cash Warren has casually lifted from him could do—into sobering perspective. And a stage direction just after that speech, “Warren looks at [Dennis] as if from a very great distance,” offers a key to the play’s sneaky wisdom about the passage of time, about the ways nostalgia can take root in the present tense, a stubborn bloom in the sidewalk cracks of our lives. Ruffalo famously argued with Lonergan about casting him and Josh Hamilton, both of whom were pushing 30, in the roles of 19-year-old Warren and 21-year-old Dennis, pointing out—quite rightly, it turned out—that with the benefit of hindsight they could interpret post-adolescence better than actors who were actually going through it.

That "great distance" stage direction is one clue why slightly older actors make such a good fit for the play, and why it's ultimately much more than a proto-Apatovian stoner sitcom. This Is Our Youth beautifully, I’d even say definitively, captures the terribly self-conscious purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, the point when young people start to wax preemptively wistful about their youth—both in recalling their already idealized past, and also, more poignantly, in speculating how they will recall the often ugly and seemingly pointless blur of their transitional present. Warren’s satchel full of vintage toys and records, ultimately sold off in a pinch, is only the most obvious loss-of-innocence symbol, and Dennis has a striking early speech in which he portrays himself as less a simple drug dealer than as the put-upon peddler of his peers’ future warm memories.

But the awakening from childhood to adulthood, with its own bounty of terrors and disappointments, is also embedded in the play’s arc; by the end, high-strung alpha-male Dennis, shell-shocked by a close encounter with senseless death, has gone from treating his clumsy, wayward friend Warren as a punching bag to all but supplicating for a return to Warren's good graces. This, for Dennis, is growth, while for Warren, who has clearly attained some quiet glimmer of insight within the play's not-quite-24-hour time span, growth is marked by that sympathetic speech about his abusive dad and that distant, almost contented look with which he closes the play.

As Dennis and Warren share a last joint before the final curtain, it serves as a rite to mark the passing of a worn-out childhood bond and the negotiation of different, necessarily more conditional terms of friendship. The world they face is the one we now know all too well, for better or worse. The rest is memory.

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