MANFRED WERNER (TSUI)/CC BY-SA 4.0
Kenneth Lonegran won an Academy Award in 2016 for his film Manchester by the Sea.
The John Astin Theatre’s production of This Is Our Youth debuted this last weekend. The play, written by Kenneth Lonergan of the recent film Manchester by the Sea, explores the lives of three young adults living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1983. Throughout the course of a tumultuous few days, they navigate moments of loss, desire, exasperation and existential crisis.
Well-known actor turned Homewood Professor of the Arts John Astin directed the production. Before it began, Astin presented a brief speech about his love for Lonergan’s work and his continued desire, since the 1980s, to put on his own production of it.
Astin explained that, up until this point in time, he had never found the right combination of actors to perform the piece. He also noted that, while the play is set in 1983, there are several elements, namely the portrayal of misogyny, that still hold true in today’s society.
With that, the play began with one of the central characters, Dennis (senior Gabe Gaston), lying on his bed (which was little more than a mattress and a thin blanket scattered on the floor) and mindlessly watching television.
He is in his own apartment, mostly barren except for a metal table and chair, a kitchen with Rice Krispies, a record player and a rotary phone. This is the only set for the entirety of the show.
His peaceful activity is interrupted by his friend Warren (senior Isaac Lunt), who arrives in a frantic huff with his suitcase and a green linen sack filled with $15,000 that he stole from his wealthy father before being kicked out of the house.
With nowhere else to go, Warren seeks guidance from Dennis, who holds a clear sense of authority over him from the start. In a state of despair and uncertainty, the two hatch a scheme to set up Warren with Jessica, a friend of Dennis’ girlfriend, by providing the girls with a night of champagne and cocaine.
When Dennis leaves to purchase the night’s supplies, we are introduced to our final character, Jessica (sophomore Sinclaire Schaefer), who tentatively inches into the apartment in tall nude stilettos.
She and Warren, who has a reputation for being off-putting to women (and people in general), clash at first and later bond over Warren’s collection of antique toys.
From there we follow the characters through a day of absolute elation and uncomfortable conversations. They are pushed to their limits and are forced to face difficult truths about their outwardly charmed existences.
While the play has clear markers of being set three decades ago — from classic 80s prep attire to the reliance on a landline phone — there are certain themes that, as Astin mentioned in his speech, persist as topics of conversation today.
It looks at the dangers of drug use, the uncertainty of youth and the deep inequality of privilege found across different socioeconomic groups. It also delves into the objectification of women.
Schaefer commented on the play’s connection with modern audiences in an email to The News-Letter.
“We are all these three lost, confused kids or at least have been at some point,” she wrote. “I hope people who see the show can come away with some version of that same transformative experience for themselves.”
Though Jessica is a continued topic of discussion for the boys, Lonergan does not present her as a two-dimensional figure. She also argues from her own perspectives on life and has a complex set of experiences and desires.
While the characters are not entirely likeable as people, the strong skills of the three actors, all with extensive acting experience, create an undeniable atmosphere of empathy.
We may not want these characters as our friends, but we do care about their lives and what will become of them.
Gaston’s Dennis is at once charming and unpredictable, wooing his drug-dealing business associates over the phone and snapping brutal insults at Warren and his girlfriend. However, over the course of the performance, we begin to see the cracks in Dennis’ carefully crafted persona.
Lunt as Warren also undergoes a transformation. While he begins as a trembling outcast with hunched posture, he slowly starts to challenge the pain of his past and present, particularly surrounding the death of his sister and his strained relationship with his father. While Dennis dominates much of the conversation, Warren ultimately has the final word.
While Jessica is not given as full of an arc as the lead characters, Schaefer’s bold, natural stage presence and sympathetic portrayal perfectly complement the uneasiness of Lunt’s Warren.
Overall, the play offers a thought-provoking look into what it means to be a young person. Audience members laughed out loud, sighed and exclaimed at the various twists and turns of the narrative, engaged in the lives of the dynamic characters.
The final performances will take place in the John Astin Theatre of the Merrick Barn this coming weekend. The play will be showing Friday-Sunday: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.