Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste

Starting gate productions gets stuck on the '80s

In 1998 I predicted that Adam Sandler's The Wedding Singer would be the defining document of a lost decade--the emotional Everest of 1980s nostalgia. Five years have exposed that wishful thinking for another of my prophetic bungles, right up there with "No amount of high-tech humbug will kill the public's passion for letter writing," and "Maroon is the new black." Steadily and oppressively my memories of the Reagan era are being replaced by Clinton- and Bush II-era revisits. This week I was importuned by the Human League's synth-pop hit "Don't You Want Me" three times (office restroom, Brit's Pub, brief snippet on radio), just like it was March of '82 all over again.

It is March of '82 in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, a 1996 comedy about anomie and overdoses, filled with paper-cut-sharp dialogue and grossly overcooked exposition. In Starting Gate Productions' current revival, Topher Brattain plays the now-familiar Lonerganian (recent recipient of the Solzhenitsynian award for Adjectival Awkwardness) antihero, a feckless sweetie named Warren. In the presence of his excoriating friend Dennis (Stephen Frethem), Warren is insecure and obtuse; with Cyndi Lauper-like ingénue Jessica (Heidi Bakke) he's insecure and articulate. In both settings, Brattain is an endearing slouch, exuding the hangdog charm of Mark Ruffalo in Lonergan's You Can Count on Me without copping Ruffalo's style.

On the night I saw the show, Frethem occasionally gasped beneath Dennis's linguistic deluge (key line: "I'm so keyed up, I can't shut up"). Perhaps he was rushing, though frenzy is fitting for Dennis, a coked-up popinjay who has an orifice-related epithet for all his dearest associates. At any rate, his performance wants for modulation as much as his character wants for temperance. I shall again own up to a general prejudice against onstage yelling (I have this recurring nightmare about a road trip with Dee Snider and Al Pacino), which partly explains why Frethem's Act 2 bluster felt to me like an actor's first stop and a director's last resort.

The cast of This Is Our Youth conjuring the original co-ed lineup of Fun Boy Three
John Autey
The cast of This Is Our Youth conjuring the original co-ed lineup of Fun Boy Three

As Jessica, Bakke offers a mix of inspiration and cliché. Through well-chosen pouts and poses, she nails armored vulnerability. Her Brooklyn (I think) accent, however, is a caricature and seems misplaced. And unfortunately director K. Jason Bryan demeans Jessica and Warren's mostly superb scene of clumsy courtship with borrowed goods. Jessica's jack-in-the-box reaction to Warren's loveseat come-on, for example, is one of those hackneyed moments that buffets verisimilitude like a boom mic crowning a movie frame.

Jessica is possibly from lower economic strata than Dennis and Warren, but it's hard to tell. Granted, I haven't traveled much in the circles This Is Our Youth examines, but the cast could bring more crust to their upper crusty, Less Than Zero-like decadents. The boys come from Upper West Side affluence: Dennis is the son of a famous painter; the sexually frustrated Warren is wittily made the scion of a lingerie tycoon. Dennis--on whom the burden of telegraphing wealth largely falls--wears a pastel polo shirt--why isn't the collar up?--but his speech is more Brooklyn hood than Upper West Side punk. Well, whatever, with unemployment on the rise and the growing conflict with the Sandinistas and all, quibbling with a play actor seems totally bogus anyway.

 
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