Two decades before Manchester By The Sea won him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Kenneth Lonergan burst upon the theatrical scene with This Is Our Youth, the then 30something playwright’s funny, biting, perceptive look at three privileged but disaffected 20ish New Yorkers in the early Reagan ‘80s, a coming-of-age tale that now provides three 20ish L.A. acting up-and-comers with a terrific vehicle to strut their comedic-dramatic stuff.
Dennis Ziegler (Wolfgang Novogratz) may call a cramped, run-down mess of an Upper West Side apartment home, but how many 21-year-olds can tell their parents, “Don’t send me to college. Just spring for my rent,” and not get laughed at?
Then again, when you’re a tall, dark, handsome hunk with seemingly sky-high self-esteem (“I should totally direct movies, man. I’d be a genius at it.”), things tend to come easily, whether sex or drugs or hangers-on.
No wonder then that when 19-year-old Warren Straub (Leo B. Ramsey) gets kicked out of the family home for stinking it up with his weed, he shows up at Dennis’s flat, this “strange barking-dog of a kid” having no other place to go, no matter that being around Dennis means getting called “fucking moron” and “sniveling little obnoxious punk” … and that’s only within the first minutes of his unannounced arrival.
Still, when you’ve left home with fifteen-thousand dollars in cash you’ve just pilfered from your criminally-tied dad, no one’s seriously going to tell you to go take a hike, not even Dennis.
It’s not just the need for a roof over his head that’s brought Warren over suitcase in hand, though. It turns out Dennis’s girlfriend has a female friend Warren’s been crushing on, and if the two girls could just be invited over, the foursome could take some of those hundred-dollar bills, head on over to a pricy Manhattan hotel, and party like it’s 1999.
Ultimately, only one of the young women shows up chez Dennis, though fortunately for a seriously smitten Warren, that turns out to be Jessica (Ashlyn Pearce), a bold beauty so clearly out of the sad-sack stoner’s league that even wishing and hoping she might give him the time of day would seem to be a waste of time.
Still, stranger things have happened.
Though nothing earthshaking transpires over sixteen or so hours to this entirely too self-involved trio, it’s easy to see why Lonergan’s ear for crackling, authentic dialog and his characters’ edgy, dramatic interaction have made This Is Our Youth an acting class favorite, and indeed its current Avery Schreiber Playhouse staging had its genesis in a scene Novogratz and Ramsey performed at Hollywood’s Aquila Morong Studio.
Factor in Daytime Emmy nominee Pearce to the mix of actors who are, wonder of wonders, virtually the same ages as the characters they are playing, and you’ve got a production worth seeing if only as a showcase for three young thespians about whom much more will be seen and heard.
Those who catch This Is Our Youth during the remaining weekend of its run will count themselves particularly lucky to have witnessed Ramsey’s L.A. stage debut, the St. Louis transplant revealing not only the quicksilver brilliance of a young Sean Penn, Edward Norton, or Leonardo DiCaprio but a character of unexpected worth.
Novogratz displays considerable leading man potential as Dennis, but the high school basketball star-turned-actor could work on overcoming a tendency to rush through lines and reduce to one syllable words that ought to be made up of two or three.
Pearce makes it clear her Best Young Actress Emmy nom was no fluke, her Jessica combining beauty, intelligence, and vulnerability in equal measure.
Brad Barnes directs the threesome on an uncredited but effective black-walled blackbox set. (The chalked-on windows and buzzer are a nice touch.) Costume choices are character-appropriate, though the production’s overall look, for which no one receives design credit, is more showcase than pro.
This Is Our Youth is produced by Novogratz and Aquila Morong Studio. Jack Fleischer is stage manager.
For both an early glimpse at the man who later went on to write and direct You Can Count On Me and Manchester By The Sea and a chance to witness Leo B. Ramsey’s breakout star turn as Warren, this under-the-radar production is worth checking out.
Avery Schreiber Playhouse, 4934 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
April 2, 2017