Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2001
The first thing the BTF needs to do is change the title of this play. It is not appealing and does not accurately represent the experience you are going to have if you spend your $20 on a ticket.
The second things they need to do is give me $50 and a Saturday to go tag sale-ing and I will fix the atrocious propping. It is not often that you come out of the theatre saying, “The props were AWFUL!” which shows a) what a good job most prop departments do; and b) how important good props really are to a show. If they are good you don’t notice them at all. If they are bad they can ruin the whole evening.
Luckily bad props and the wrong title cannot do anything to ruin the superb acting by Sarah Avery, James Barry, and Greg Keller and dead-on direction by Oliver Butler. I think I focus on those two negatives first because they are so darned easy to fix. Once you have the right team of actors and director, retitling and repropping are nothing. You can’t really change a show’s title during a run, but I hope consideration is given to a new moniker at a later date. The props could be fixed literally overnight, and I hope that they are.
The really big problem this show faces is its weak script by Kenneth Lonergan. The acting and direction in this production mask many of these faults. This is the second show by Lonergan that I have reviewed, and I went to look at my 1999 review of The Waverly Gallery at the Williamstown Theatre Festival to see what I had made of his writing then. To his credit, the two shows tackle completely different characters and situations, but both suffer from a desire to call attention to a problem rather than to tell a story. Lonergan succeeds better with his storytelling here, possibly because he focuses very sharply on just a few characters.
Warren Straub (Keller), Dennis Zeigler (Barry), and Jessica Goldman (Avery) are three wealthy young Jews struggling to figure out life and their place in it on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the early 1980’s. They are not doing a very good job of it, yet, but there are very faint glimmers of hope for the future in their late adolescent flailings. I am only about five years older than these characters and I can attest that some of the kind and responsible adults of today were exactly the same kind of fuck-ups Warren, Dennis, and Jessica were in their youth.
This is something that I object to in both the title and the very generic placement in time of this play. There is no reason for this play to be set in the early 1980’s. Except for the presence of a turntable and a few references to Ronald Regan there is nothing time-specific about this play. Young adults behaved this same way in the 1960’s and they behave this way today. And yet no one generation, as a whole, has really been any better or worse than the one that came before. This is not “our youth.” This is some people’s youth. It ain’t my youth. It is a snapshot of twelve hours in the lives of three very specific people who are at a very difficult time in their lives. They are making some of the right choices and many of the wrong choices and they will suffer the consequences of both.
In The Waverly Gallery I particularly admired Lonergan’s portrait of an elderly woman slowly falling victim to Alzheimer’s Disease, so I cannot make the sweeping statement that he does not write female characters well. He just didn’t write the character of Jessica well. She is barely more than a gratuitous sex object. Avery is beautiful and talented and does a nice job with the very little she is given, but hers was not a fully realized character from the start.
The story Lonergan wants to tell here is the story of Dennis and Warren. This is the heart and soul of this play. Barry and Keller have two incredibly meaty and interesting parts, and they have a whale of a time with them. Alas for Keller that he bears an uncanny physical resemblance to actor Dustin Diamond, who portrayed Screech on Saved By The Bell and its many spin-offs for over a decade. His portrayal of Warren is poignant and real, but both my husband, who has barely seen Saved By The Bell, and I were haunted by a sense of deja vu while watching him. The character of Warren is nothing like the character of Screech, and yet Keller’s mannerisms are so like Diamond’s that you get an uncanny feeling of d?j? vu.
The props that are so problematic are a suitcase full of “vintage toys” belonging to Warren. We are supposed to believe that these toys (and a toaster) are worth $2,000 1980’s dollars. First, the toys and toaster in the suitcase are not worth $2 even on today’s crazed collectibles market, and secondly, people weren’t paying ridiculous prices for “vintage toys” back then unless they were truly vintage, like pre-1950. How hard would it have been for the prop master/mistress at BTF to go to a toy collector or collectibles store or get on e-Bay for an hour and get the loan of a suitcase full of something believable?
This is a powerful and surprisingly funny play. It is not a perfect play, but this is as near perfect a production as it is going to get, I would wager. If you object to four-letter words and simulated pot smoking, stay far, far away. Otherwise I would definitely recommend spending the bargain basement price of $20 per seat to see this show. This Is Our Youth runs through July 14 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show run two hours and is suitable for teens and adults who don’t object to strong language and the depiction of drug use.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001