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This Is Our Youth

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The Rep usually can pride itself on acquiring the best actors for its shows, but with this production, it comes up painfully short.

This Is Our Youth
By Kenneth Lonergan
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Directed by John Ruocco
Through December 4, 2005

The Off-Ramp is closed; follow the detour.

Bringing the inaugural season of the Off-Ramp—a new series of daring, experimental, and provocative pieces presented by the more straight-laced Repertory Theatre of St. Louis—to a close is Kenneth Lonergan’s dark and curious piece This Is Our Youth. The plot resembles that of your typical ABC After-School Special, minus the moral of the story and the redemption of the main characters. It centers on Dennis, a young man in New York City who lives on his own. He is the son of a prominent artist, and a small time drug dealer. He also uses his own product, but not to the point where it causes him any great harm. His friend Warren—an annoying, wannabe rebel who collects odd toys, records, and toasters—has just stolen $15,000 from his abusive father and turns up on Dennis’ doorstep. Dennis, who treats Warren with clear disdain, grudgingly lets him in. Once he discovers Warren’s crime, freaks out, saying that he doesn’t want Warren’s dad—the “most dangerous lingerie manufacturer in the world”—on his case. Warren assures him the money won’t be missed for several days, leading Dennis to hatch a plan to use the money for a quick profit on some cocaine. Enter Jessica, the friend of Dennis’ girlfriend. Warren has it bad for her, and through some finagling, is able to convince her to go on a date.

Act I ends with Warren and Jessica deciding to leave the apartment and spend the night at the Plaza in a fancy suite while Dennis and his girlfriend are out scoring the powder. At this point, I was slightly confused why the Repertory Theatre chose this production for its third Off-Ramp show. The pacing was slow and uneven, and ultimately, nothing happens in the first act. Hardly daring, experimental, or provocative. I chalked it up to there probably being something groundbreaking in Act II. Sadly, I was wrong.

Act II finds Warren and Jessica not working out, a cheesy meltdown and reconciliation between Dennis and Warren (“I’m your hero?” Dennis sobs to Warren after Warren’s confession of adoration), and Warren’s phoned-in confrontation with his father, who has noticed the missing money. There is a glimmer of redemption when Dennis returns home, freaked out by his dealer’s overdose death. He ruminates on the meaning of life and grapples with his own mortality…for about a minute. He then tries to hatch a plan to sell the remaining cocaine (and still make a profit), and ends the show by smoking a joint with Warren. No lesson learned, no redemption gained. This Is Our Youth goes nowhere and takes the longest way to it.

The three actors in the roles also didn’t add much to the story. The Rep usually can pride itself on acquiring the best actors for its shows, but with this production, it comes up painfully short. As Warren, Will Rogers plays the part as a highly annoying loser. And he is annoying...very annoying. Some of the choices Rogers makes for the role make him seem to be completely inexperienced. His uneven vocal cadence was grating and, at times, as annoying as the character. But oddly, it didn’t add anything to the character. Also, I never understood why Rogers chose to play Warren as a jittery, annoying loser. The script makes him out to be more of an ass, the kind of friend you don’t really want to be around, but find you don’t have a choice.

Brian Petersson—who could be Ashton Kutcher’s stunt double—also does not add much to his character. He has some nice moments by himself, but interacting with Warren, he rarely comes across as believable. His telephone conversations are especially painful to watch; at one point, he loses his cool, stomping around the apartment in an overly melodramatic way.

The only ray of light in this cast comes from Kristina Valada-Viars as Jessica, who played the part with heartfelt honesty and real emotion. She made Jessica’s decision to be with Warren a little more believable than the script did. Unfortunately, her character was completely useless. She didn’t serve to make Warren any more likeable, nor did she help advance the plot in any significant way.

One could argue that the play’s lack of direction and meandering could reflect the youths depicted in the script, but in all honesty, you don’t need to bore your audience to get across the point that these kids have no direction or purpose to their lives aside from getting high. This story could have been told in a more compelling way that makes us care about the characters in the end.

Another thing that struck me as being particularly odd was the anachronistic costumes and set dressing. The story is set in the early 1980s, yet the costumes speak more of a mid-1990s setting. A pair of rollerblades hangs on the wall throughout the show, and while they were around in 1982, they hardly looked at all like the pair used in the play. Little things like this that just added to my frustration as I watched the show. There was really nothing physical that lended itself to the time period, despite the many references to the Reagan era. The set design, however, was a highlight. John Ezell has crafted a magnificent set for this show that gives the play that professional polish. The lighting design by John Wylie was subtle and effective.

It’s clear that director John Ruocco did his best with the actors and script, but all in all, it was an effort akin to trying to swim out of an undertow during high tide. While I am normally impressed with anything the Rep puts out there for public consumption, I left feeling unsatisfied. This Is Our Youth is not as powerful as the two previous Off-Ramp entries, Take Me Out and bug, nor is it as engaging as the last Lonergan piece the Rep produced, last season’s Studio production of Lobby Hero. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

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