As Yasmina Reza's Art reaches the end of its West End run, its knack of attracting big-name casts has been equalled and surpassed by Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, which has become the London outing of preference for current Hollywood bratpackers.
Its original three-handed cast earlier this year boasted Anna Paquin, a pre-Attack Of The Clones Hayden Christensen and a phenomenal stage début from Jake Gyllenhaal, subsequently seen in Donnie Darko; they were succeeded by Matt Damon, the only Affleck he could find to hand (Ben's brother Casey) and a miscellaneous Phoenix (Joaquin and the late River's sister Summer). After a summer break, it now returns to the Garrick Theatre with Kieran "brother of..." Culkin, Colin "son of..." Hanks, and the, shall we say, familially unencumbered Alison Lohman. And it certainly hits its target demographic, audience-wise, with one of the youngest West End houses I have seen for some time, particularly on a press night.
I find myself fonder of the play on this second visit: much of what I had considered weakness in the writing before is simply unashamed fluff. To be sure, Lonergan clearly signals with the title that he is casting a wry glance back on the current power generation's dysfunctional origins as the teens of two decades ago. However, the one explicit line in the play about that generation's parents, the idealists of the 1960s, voting Reagan into power when they grew up, is largely a throwaway. This is not a social indictment, so much as the stage equivalent of getting out the embarrassing photos of one's adolescence for a nostalgic chuckle.
Teenage nerd Warren, kicked out by his father, takes refuge in the one-room Manhattan flat of his best friend, the streetwise and contemptuous Dennis, along with $15,000 which Warren stole from home. Over the course of a weekend the boys screw up a sizeable cocaine deal and Warren gets together with the edgy, defensive-aggressive Jessica.
Culkin is disarming but never winsome as Warren. One can never quite believe that such a sweet and appealing lad has never made it with a girl, but he pilots the character well on his journey from hapless and downtrodden to assured yet stoical. Lohman's Jessica may also be a little too winning, but she similarly works from the inside outwards: Jessica is clearly a bit of a mess, with Warren happening to be in the fallout zone, rather than an externally spiky girl who then opens up unexpectedly.
Hanks gets the worst deal in terms of character: Lonergan loses control of the plot in the final half-hour, falling back on a lengthy monologue in which Dennis confesses that he too is how he is because of feelings of inadequacy. Until that point, though, Dennis needs to be abrasive in the way that Jessica is not, and Hanks can't manage it. Instead of chippy NYC-Jewish teen bravado (Dennis declares himself "a Jewish god... Jew-lius Caesar"), he comes over as a rather vexed specimen of what used to be called muscular Christianity.
This early work (dating from 1995) lacks the wisdom and insight of Lonergan's Lobby Hero, also seen here earlier this year, along with some of that play's polish; This Is Our Youth, for instance, doesn't so much end as just stop. But it does its modest job more than modestly well.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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