Review: ‘This Is Our Youth,’ at CustomMade Theatre Company (*****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Bullying Dennis (David Raymond) easily bullies his weaker friend, Warren (Sam Berken) in Custom Made Theater's production of Kenneth Lonergan's Tony-nominated
The much stronger Dennis (David Raymond) easily bullies his weaker friend, Warren (Sam Berken) in Custom Made Theater’s production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Tony-nominated “This Is Our Youth” at CustomMade Theater Company. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Kenneth Lonergan sets “This Is Our Youth” in 20-something Dennis’s messy, chaotic, and tiny New York City studio apartment, where we first see him all alone, getting excited and angry at some junk TV show. Feisty Dennis is carrying on a combative conversation with the TV. His obvious isolation and his disordered 80s gear spread over the floors and walls spell dysfunction in his youthful development. When his friend Warren drops in, after some brilliantly annoying and bullying repartee on the speaker phone, we get more proof of Dennis’s reluctance to engage with real people. We begin to see how Dennis sadistically dominates his submissive and troubled “friend.”

Lonergan, an Irish-Jewish playwright, premiered “This Is Our Youth” Off-Broadway in 1996; the play returned to Broadway in 2014, and was nominated for a Tony Award, after playing in theaters all around the country. Lonergan has written the screenplay for the mafia comedy Analyze This (1999), and wrote and directed the movie You Can Count on Me, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He was also nominated for his work on the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. He seems to be a man for all seasons: movies and plays, like “Lobby Hero,” that comment on how social conditions produce neurotic struggles.

The relation between Dennis and Warren takes us on a wild ride, with plenty of amusing obscenity and revealing conversations between the “buddies.” As revealed in witty dialogue, they are upper class, Upper West Side, Jewish, and spoiled. Warren is still going to the University, while Dennis has dropped out and imagines himself a movie maker. We know he’s full of crap, but his friend looks up to his domineering and manipulative male antics. Warren is slight and self-loathing, an effect of his father’s violent treatment; Dennis is muscular and takes every advantage he can. The relationship is reminiscent of the 80’s hit movie “Wall Street,” written and directed by Oliver Stone, in which the corrupt Gordon Gekko takes control of U.S. culture.

Sadistic Dennis has a girl-friend, whom we do not meet. But he abuses her fanatically on the telephone, running from highs to lows in seconds — a brilliant tour de force of acting by David Raymond, who sparkles throughout the play, startling us with his tirades, rants, and fits. He hurls insults and throws tantrums powerfully, making us watch him as if he were a cobra. His counterpart, Warren, played precisely and winningly by Sam Bertken, makes a worthy partner who finally comes to a great realization and a great tirade, himself, bringing the two young pot-smoking dudes full circle.

Warren has stolen $15,000 from his abusive quasi-gangster father, and he is quaking with fear. Dennis’s Machiavellian plan to buy drugs, resell them, and recoup some of the money to make a profit is clearly doomed from the start. But watching his plans unravel, as he asserts his dominance over the sympathetic and cringing Warren, captures our attention. They are living the “Greed Is Good” motto from Wall Street, the movie. They show us how they were raised in the American 80s. They are Reagan’s children, radiating the self-obsession, false-individuality, and lost idealism that stem from that fateful time. We can imagine them as youthful Ted Cruzes or mini-Trumps in training. This is how we have raised “our youth.”

Of course, there is sex to be sought after, too. Dennis fixes Warren up with Jessica, winningly played by Kate Robbins, and the two young “lovers” dance delicately around questions of sex, love, drugs, and romance. They do a lovely job of perching on the edge of interest and commitment, sexual attraction and earnest love. Kate Robbins taunts her young man brilliantly, bringing us to the edge of our seats.

Not much happens in this play, but that’s the point — it’s all internal myth-making in Reagan’s mythic America. Some will tell you we are still living in that myth — look at our elections, our economy, our candidates. Maybe Warren can break away from the abusive father and friend, and maybe even make up with the worried and perverse Jessica. Will he become Mark Zuckerberg, or will he drown in his own paranoia? Is he us, or are we still admiring the pathological Dennis, today? “This Is Our Youth” helps us see ourselves and how we got to this point.

Lonergan shows us the privileged out of control — through their damaged children. Brian Katz’s precise direction leads us directly from the 80s genesis to our current apotheosis. Don’t miss this play. It’s all about US, now.

“This Is Our Youth” by Kenneth Lonergan plays at Custom Made Theatre, through Saturday, October 24, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“This Is Our Youth” by Kenneth Lonergan, produced by CustomMade Theater Company. Director: Brian Katz. Stage Manager: Liz Picurro. Scenic Designer: Stewart Lyle. Costumes: Brook Jennings. Lighting: Maxx Kurzunski. Sound: Ryan Lee Short. Props: Liz Picurro. Fights: Jon Bailey. Key Art: Cody Rishell. Choreographer: Kim Saunders.

Cast:

Dennis: David Raymond. Warren: Sam Bertken. Jessica: Katie Robbins.

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