The Theatreguide.London Review
Like some of his other work, Kenneth Lonergan's play is a leisurely, almost plotless character study that sneaks through your conscious defences until you not only get to know his people intimately, but really care about them and enjoy their company. In this case, it's a trio of affluent-but-disaffected Jewish teenagers in New York in 1982.
Warren (Gyllenhaal) is a hapless loser who has just been thrown out of the house by his father, and comes to crash with his buddy Dennis (Christensen), a small-time drug dealer who has a flat of his own, paid for by his parents so he'll stay away from them. Warren has fallen for, and finally gets to meet Jessica (Paquin), a fashion student and the only non-slacker in the trio, but so tightly wound that the most casual word to her generates an argument.
What passes for a plot is generated by Warren stealing $15,000 from his father when he left. The boys are torn between blowing the money and giving it back, and generate schemes involving a drug deal and the sale of Warren's precious toy collection to recoup what they have spent.
But the fun lies in just watching these three very different neurotics bounce off each other. In awe of Dennis's seeming polish, Warren lets his buddy bully and insult him, but Jessica's even wilder abuse somehow stimulates him to standing up and being more assertive in his wooing, which in turn disarms her, producing slight cracks in her self-protective armour.
The play ends almost where it began, but with our understanding of these characters so enriched that we can't help wishing them well.
And the three performers successfully contribute their own immense charm and attractiveness to the play's success. Hayden Christensen conveys Dennis's energy and hustling skills without ever blinding us to the realisation that the kid is ultimately a loser, while Anna Paquin triumphs over the challenges of playing a character determined not to interact with the others, out of some unexpressed but quietly moving fear of her own vulnerability.
But it is Jake Gyllenhaal who really serves as the play's emotional spine, letting us watch Warren grow through his love for Jessica and gradually making us realise that this hapless shnook is actually the most nearly-balanced and potentially successful adult of the three.
The scenes in which his bumbling sincerity worms its way through Jessica's defences, or in which, silently listening to Dennis insult him, he lets his face show a half-understood awareness that he is outgrowing his buddy, are marvels of sensitive underplaying.
Director Laurence Boswell deserves credit for guiding his stars to such sensitive performances and sustained characterisations. The script is not without flaws, particularly in a somewhat unfocussed last half-hour.
But, both as an introduction to a trio of characters you come to care about and as a vehicle for a trio of performers who are a pleasure to watch, This Is Our Youth is the most satisfying new play this season.
NOVEMBER 2002: After a six month layoff, Kenneth Lonergan's sweet and funny look at a trio of New York rich kids who have lost their way returns with a new trio of Hollywood starlings. And the strength of the play is proven by the way it works beautifully with three entirely different interpretations of the characters.
Hapless shnook Warren has been thrown out by his father and comes to crash with his friend Dennis, a hustler and small-time drug dealer. Warren has stolen a lot of money from his dad, and the boys try to concoct a plan to profit from it before giving it back. Meanwhile Warren gets his chance with Jessica, the girl of his dreams. Not all works out well but, in Lonergan's signature style, we come to know, care about, and wish the best for these three essentially good kids.
Those who saw the original cast (See my review above) will be intrigued by the news that this new version has been somewhat softened and domesticated, and still works just as well. Where Hayden Christenson played Dennis as feral, Colin Hanks (son of the more famous Tom) makes it clear from the start that he is just an ordinary kid, a high school jock going through a naughty phase that he'll outgrow before going to college and becoming a lawyer.
This makes it all the more important to us that Warren, who is considerably less of a loser than Dennis keeps telling him he is, outgrow him, and Kieran Culkin (brother of the more famous Macauley), by playing him less pathetically than Jake Gyllenhaal did - he actually does pretty well with Jessica, despite his nervousness - makes us aware of his intelligence and potential sooner.
And, where Anna Paquin played Jessica as so high-strung that she couldn't help sabotaging her own attempts to be friendly, Alison Lohman (not related to anyone famous, as far as I know) seems at first very ordinary. My 16-year-old companion twigged sooner than I did that this Jessica "didn't fit into her image," and it took me a while to catch on that Lohman was playing a very insecure girl trying to look cooler than she felt. And of course, once you sense that (however quickly you do), the more you hope for Jessica and Warren to get together.
In short, three attractive young performers giving three excellent performances each entirely different from the original cast's, and the play's warmth and humour and love for its characters come across just as strongly. I doubt whether you can find - and I choose my adjective carefully - a nicer evening in the theatre this season.
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Review - This Is Our Youth - Garrick 2002