I’m not sure I should be reviewing Blue Water Theatre Company’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is Our Youth. On the one hand, it is part of Southern Theater’s ARTshare offerings, and Blue Water is one of the resident companies this year. On the other hand, this could only charitably be called a full production, and I don’t think it helps anybody if I start grading on a curve. If reviewing Defying Gravity felt like kicking a puppy, I’m not sure where to take that metaphor if I start evaluating This Is Our Youth.
“My father’s not a criminal, he just does business with criminals.”
Part of it isn’t Blue Water’s fault. It’s the script. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Kenneth Lonergan because of his film You Can Count On Me—early pre-Hulk Mark Ruffalo; beautifully crafted, funny, human story; a soundtrack of songs that still haunts me, I could go on. But This Our Youth has never been a favorite, much as I’ve tried to like it. It was the first thing that put Lonergan on the theater map, so for that reason it’s important. But it hasn’t held up well. A 1996 play about 1982, it comes to us from a pre-9/11 New York where the problems of three rich privileged white kids (which, let’s be honest, they mostly create for themselves) really could seem like something important. The main thing they had, and still have, going for them is Lonergan’s talent as a playwright. He’s written a series of the sort of meaty two person scenes that are perfect fodder for acting class (and will no doubt continue to serve that function). The overall play itself, it depends on how worked up you can get over these kids pretending to be adults.
“I don’t know why the f*** she’s always so worried about me.”
I’m sure it looked like a perfect transition piece for Blue Water—like Youth Performance Company creating its own more mature work through the Young Artists Council. But This Is Our Youth is an imperfect vessel, and the production falls into all of its traps. Warren (Kevin Dye) calls on his drug-dealing friend Dennis (Adam Hebeisen) to help him out of a little jam. When Warren’s father kicked him out of the house for smoking too much pot, Warren decided to take a little severance package—$15,000 he found in a briefcase. Now he needs to quickly find a way to raise some cash to make up for the money he’s already spent, so when dad comes looking, he can return it in full. Also, it would be nice if he could get laid. Dennis, of course, thinks another drug deal will take care of problem #1, and he introduces Warren to Jessica (Kasey Carpenter) in order to help along on item #2. Jessica, however, may be too smart for Warren – which just makes his pursuit of her that much more dogged.
“I guess my lungs are pretty severely damaged.”
Clearly, the lion’s share of the production period was spent on the acting, which is a good thing, and pays off. The three young actors acquit themselves well. But they’re SO young, it doesn’t quite work. Warren’s character is meant to be 19, so in many ways casting Dye is spot on. In most professional productions of the play, however, the role has been played by actors in their mid to late 20s, casting the expectations in our mind that most TV shows about high schoolers do by hiring people well out of their teens to pretend to be in their pre-college years. Dye is the correct age chronologically, but he’s both blessed and cursed with a baby face, so he appears younger. Again, given Warren’s childish ways as a wannabe tough guy, Dye’s look sometimes works well situationally. And his “white boy dancing” moves are just the comic touch his seduction of Carpenter needs. When he starts crawling on top of her, though…
“They were like ‘Go play with dolls, you little bitch,’ and I was like ‘F*** no.’”
As well as Hebeisen does inhabiting the role of Dennis (and he does very well indeed), when he says things like “I’ve been dealing drugs for five years” my brain goes, “Wait. Did you start when you were 14?” Dennis is living on his own in a one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan in the early 1980s. The mind boggles. Though co-directors Charlie Leonard and C. Luke Soucy spent nearly all their time focused on the acting, an actual design team is missing here and it shows. The Southern Theater’s stage space is vast. You could easily fit six one-room New York apartments on that stage and many of my New York friends would be happy to have just that little bit of extra space. Here the set sprawls out, and when Dennis needs to go to the bathroom, he walks all the way backstage. Seriously? The claustrophobia of living in New York is completely lost. Also, none of the cast was born back in 1982, perhaps not even 1996 when the play first hit New York stages. This makes for some unintentional prop comedy. They’re pretty game about the rotary dial phone, though I’m sure in rehearsal they must have marveled that anyone used to have the patience to take that long to dial a number. They seem completely at sea, however, in dealing with a stereo and turntable for music—no, it’s not an iPod, or even that ancient of devices—a CD player.
“She’s like a bleeding heart dominatrix with a hairdo.”
Carpenter as Jessica comes closest to both looking and acting the part in one package. Thankfully, Lonergan has written a role that, even though she makes bad choices, Jessica is not a character who is easily dismissed and Carpenter makes the most of that. All three of the actors are committed to telling this story and it comes across in their performances. For that reason alone, you wish the production as a whole were a better vehicle for their talents.
“Chivalry is not dead, it just smells funny.”
Just like ARTshare, Blue Water Theatre is experiencing some growing pains right now. Some days are better than others. Perhaps the next production will build on what was learned in this one. I feel kind of bad dinging them right out of the gate. ARTshare offerings on the level of Rehearsing Failure or These Are The Men raise the bar for everyone else participating in the experiment, and show us what a cross-section of theater all under one roof can look like. So keep pushing yourself, Blue Water. We’ll be here.