‘This Is Our Youth’ A Riveting Portrayal of 80’s Slackers – 4.5 stars

by Mike Hoban

“This Is Our Youth”. Written by Kenneth Lonergan; directed by Lewis D. Wheeler; presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. Wed-Sundays through August 25th. For additional details, visit www.gloucesterstage.com.

The difference between theater and the movies is really about scale. Most of life is not about BIG THINGS; unlike the movies, buildings and airplanes don’t usually blow up in fiery explosions and the world rarely hangs by a thread with an unlikely hero to save us all. Which is why you’ll probably never see a play with a title like “Die Hard – The Bloodletting – 7”, unless it’s a parody. A wonderful case in point that illustrates just how much more interesting the ordinary lives of regular people going through relatable dilemmas (as opposed to Reality TV) is versus the “Babes, Guns and Explosions” fare at the megaplexes this summer is on display now in the form of the Gloucester Stage Company’s captivating production of “This Is Our Youth.”

Set in 1982 at the beginning of the Reagan Era, the entire play takes place over two days at the Upper West Side apartment of Dennis Zeigler, a narcissistic kid with wealthy parents who pay for his apartment with the understanding that he’ll go to college after he “finds himself.” His parents are products of the sixties – Dad is a successful and famous artist and Mom is a tireless and committed social worker – which for all their good intentions doesn’t necessarily make for good parenting. His friend (and whipping boy) Warren Straub shows up at his door in a jam: his physically abusive Dad has grown tired of his pot-smoking slacker ways and thrown him out, and as a parting shot, Warren has stolen $15,000 dollars from his Dad’s (apparently) shady business dealings.

Warren is a brilliant study in uncomfortableness and a life being lived with zero self-esteem and the patterns of the life-long relationship between the two boys is immediately revealed. Dennis launches into a scathing rant about Warren’s worthlessness right from the start, and Warren apparently has a case of built-in hero worship that has him seeking the approval that he’ll never get – from Dennis or his Dad – so he just absorbs the abuse like sponge. The common link between the boys is their around-the-clock pot smoking and drug abuse. So when boredom inevitably sets in (almost immediately) Dennis hatches a plot that will not only allow Warren to safely return the money to his Dad and avoid another beating, but allow for a tidy profit for him and Warren. It involves scoring an ounce of cocaine and distributing it, which for a number of reasons isn’t exactly as safe an investment as say, 10-year Treasury Bonds. The second layer of the anti-boredom plot is (of course) the chicks – these are nineteen year old boys – namely Dennis’s girlfriend Valerie and her friend Jessica Goldman, whom Warren is seriously smitten with.

While Dennis goes to score the coke, Jessica and Warren begin a mating dance that is both realistic and grossly awkward. While Dennis and Warren are rudderless stoners, Jessica actually has something of a direction in life, living with her Mom and going to school for fashion design. The two start off badly but then Warren begins to show what an intelligent and thoughtful human being he can be when he’s not fending off blows from the likes of his Dad or Dennis, and we get a glimpse of what he could be like if he would grow up a bit.

All of the characters in this study of confused post high-school kids are well fleshed out and the acting performances are uniformly terrific. Alex Pollock is nothing short of brilliant. His portrayal of Warren is often painful to watch, particularly under the relentless bullying of Dennis, but his portrayal of the aimless stoner kid bears no resemblance to the kids of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. He is also a gifted physical actor which he puts to use as he shuffle/floats around the room trying to keep a safe distance between himself and those that would get too close. Jimi Stanton pulls off the self-delusional and rage-filled Dennis fairly effortlessly, even when he goes into a wild-eyed self-assessment rant towards the end of the production. And Amanda Collins is perfectly and appropriately confused and bewildered as a young woman who is just entering adulthood should be under the circumstances.

This production really nails the eighties, too, from the costuming to the use of musical cuts from the era, to the nonchalant cocaine use. The set (Jimmy’s apartment) is letter perfect and quite frankly looks like my apartment from a similar time period. And the drug dealing behavior is spot on, as the hapless boys (and I don’t really mean young men, either, despite the fact that they’re 19-20 years old) think they have the solution that never usually works out very well. This is another fine production by the Gloucester Stage Company and is truly worth the trip up north to see.