Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 drama about young adults -- wayward, yearning, disconnected -- clearly has an effect on its target audience: young adults. Gonzaga theater professor Brian Russo's students kept asking to do scenes from this play in acting classes, for one thing. And Russo adds that "the passion of these characters -- and they are intensely passionate -- is what drew me to this play." Besides, at talkbacks after on-campus performances in August, students would linger just to take actors aside and say, "Dude, I totally know that guy."
This Is Our Youth is set in a shabby little apartment on New York's Upper West Side, back during the Reagan administration. Because his parents are consumed by their careers, Dennis has rebelled by becoming a small-time drug dealer. His friend Warren has left home after stealing a chunk of his abusive father's money. Dennis -- who's cocksure, so you know he's full of insecurities -- immediately devises a plan for what to do with all that cash. But Warren isn't so sure -- especially after he meets Dennis' friend Jessica, who also has her insecurities and knows how to compensate for them. The trio's rambling discussion of their plans, relationships and values amount to a declaration: This Is what Our Youth is like.
That kind of forthrightness will take on added power when the production moves to Empyrean, a downtown coffeehouse with a brick-wall performance space (through Nov. 11).
"These are angry young people," says John Brummer, who plays Dennis. "He's so hurt because his parents have shipped him off to this studio apartment. They couldn't care less about him."
Dennis is angry about his parents' indifference and the bleakness of his own future. His crappy apartment and crappy clothes are a cry for help that he doesn't even realize that he's making.
Dennis is so unkempt, says Katie Roth, who plays Jessica, because "More than anything, it's an attempt to say, 'I don't care.' Dennis doesn't want clothes that reflect that he cares about things -- or about anything. His [disappointment] with his parents is huge. He just doesn't want to care."
Jessica herself is a mixture of assertiveness and confusion. Roth explains that "she's headstrong because she's having to protect herself. She's saying, 'This is how I'm doing this,' and she's trying to control it. She's used to others having their way, but now she's going to make the situation the way she wants it."
While Lonergan's script is peppered with F-bombs, the plentiful use of dirty words hasn't come up much in post-performance discussions. Younger members of the audience in particular, says the cast, tend to accept cursing and vulgarity as "just the way people our age talk." Jeff Rosick, who plays Warren, comments that "our generation is used to being comfortable -- there is so much technology all around us that we don't know how to articulate ourselves. We haven't had to fight for anything through language."
Once roused, however, the characters in This Is Our Youth are capable of self-change. The play aims at shocking its viewers into self-transformation.
"Kids in middle school are smoking weed and having sex," says Brummer. "These things are going on. So don't say that this [show] is inappropriate, that we shouldn't step on people's toes. God forbid we should offend some people!" he says, sarcastically. "We can use a device like theater to tell people what's going on."
While discussing social change, the cast brings up the topic of wealthy students performing token volunteer work without really involving themselves in the lives of the needy, with Roth noting that "a lot of people don't want to venture outside what they've created for themselves."
Her statement also applies to high school and college students who are more accustomed to watching movies than witnessing live-action plays. But hearing a shouting match in a confined space can be more intense than watching flickering photons at the cinema.
Director Russo, for his part, wants to emphasize "the effect this play has on young people. These kids who were coming up at the talkbacks -- they hadn't seen anything like this before. Some of those discussions lasted an hour and a half. Stuff came up, and they didn't want to leave."
This Is Our Youth will be performed at Empyrean, 154 S. Madison St., on Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 1-3, and on Thursday-Friday, Nov. 8-9, at 8 pm, and on Sundays, Nov. 4 and Nov. 11, at 4 pm. Tickets: $7. Visit barney.gonzaga.edu/~sschroed/TIOY or call 838-9819.