Kids These Days
This Is Our Youth is filled with so much graphic language, mindless violence, casual sex and even more casual drug use that producing it in a public high school would have been impossible. The story, however, has much to say about a society in which parents and children are rarely under the same roof at the same time and in which instant gratification has become the norm rather than a passing novelty.
Thus convinced of the play's intrinsic worth, Quinlan Pozner, a Denver School of the Arts student, decided to use her own money to turn Kenneth Lonergan's off-Broadway hit into a senior-class project. After gaining the attention of local producer John Ashton, Pozner and two other recent DSA graduates, guided by director and teacher Mary Reynolds, are now presenting a fully staged version at the Avenue Theater, which Ashton operates. It's a gutsy, entrepreneurial move that, as the opening-night performance proved, sidesteps bureaucratic thorns while upholding the play's vitality, relevance and humanity.
Not that Lonergan's three New Yorkers are misunderstood geniuses, fallen heroes or unfortunate victims. As they voice concerns and wallow in preoccupations, they sometimes look and sound like the characters in Kids, a brutal 1995 film about a roving gang of well-to-do Manhattan teens who found as much pleasure in kicking in a stranger's head as in swapping spit or skateboarding. (This Is Our Youth premiered in 1996 under the direction of Mark Brokaw, son of newsman Tom.) After the first few scenes, however, it becomes clear that Lonergan's characters aren't blazing new trails of destruction. They're merely revisiting their parents' halcyon days of free love, bad trips, loud music and putrid, ill-fitting clothing.
In this case, though, the stakes are higher and the implications far more sweeping: The play, which was originally set in 1982, has been updated to the present -- a wise choice that places even more emphasis on the crucial role that money, or the painful lack of it, plays in everyone's lives. Dropping out and tuning in might have been a temporary option for the Woodstock crowd, but 21st-century hedonism, and the irresponsibility that comes with it, requires piles of ready cash -- needs that today's parents are sometimes only too glad to provide. As the two-hour play progresses, the actors beautifully reveal that Dennis, Warren and Jessica -- a hardened drug dealer, his adoring pal and a doe-eyed waif, respectively -- are less-than-kindred souls cast adrift in bottomless seas of self-doubt. Delivering performances that, at times, would hold their own on most any professional stage, the three perfectly capture the buried wishes and fractured dreams of today's so-called Lost Generation.
While it's sometimes difficult to identify with the characters -- seeing Dennis (Tony LoVerde) fret over a drug deal's profit margins doesn't exactly engender waves of understanding nods -- it's never hard to feel for any of them. And nowhere is the action more poignant than when Jessica (Pozner) and Warren (Israel Cuhen Martinez) are left alone to explore their feelings for each other. Because they're almost total strangers, it looks as though the two won't have much to sort out. But for children accustomed to being denied the attention they crave -- and that, we come to understand, is exactly who these characters are -- any form of interaction is balm to the soul. As Pozner and Martinez trade opinions and little jokes, as well as desperate kisses and gropes, feelings that have been looking for a way -- any way -- to mature and develop suddenly come to the fore. So do a couple of sobering thoughts. Noting that her parents were '60s rebels who have since settled into comfortable careers, Jessica says, "I definitely feel that evil has triumphed in our time," a statement that's likely to strike perilously close to home for former avowed enemies of The Establishment.
Also striking a chord, no doubt, are the ideas in Dennis's lengthy, stream-of-consciousness monologue near the end of the play, book-ended by passages of needless sermonizing, which LoVerde colors with quiet, near-manic despair. (As irony would have it, he and Martinez, lying flat on their backs and staring at the ceiling, look at that moment like a pair of juvenile innocents kicking back in a treehouse, oblivious to any sort of evil.) Apart from a ponderous first scene, the performers forge solid connections with the characters, never resorting to the cop-outs of stereotype or vague suggestion. As played against a cluttered setting that looks as though it's the final resting place for every teenager's accumulated flotsam, it's clear that the actors understand the worlds these characters come from, the frustrations they live with, the common vortex of failure that threatens to swallow them whole.
Watching entire segments of a generation self-destruct and lose sight of reality isn't pretty. But the play is honest, the production is well done, and the issues are provocative and to the point. It's heartening to see a local theater give a leg up to some talented, by-their-bootstraps beginners. Above all, as Reynolds and the actors aptly demonstrate, it's certain that taking a good hard look at what's going on in the world is a sight better than keeping our eyes wide shut.
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