Kieran Culkin as Dennis and Michael Cera as Warren in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre
Kieran Culkin as Dennis and Michael Cera as Warren in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre
(© Michael Brosilow)

Directed by Tony-winner Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) and featuring memorable, richly nuanced performances by Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, and Kieran Culkin, Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth calls to mind quintessential coming-of-age tales such as The Catcher in the Rye, Less Than Zero, and The Outsiders. Like those seminal stories, This Is Our Youth probes big questions — Who am I? How do I make something out of my life? — as its young protagonists stumble through that often overwhelming zone of self-invention that spans the years between high school graduation and figuring out what you what and who you want when you grow up.

Rather than try to answer such questions, Lonergan filters the journey through the eyes of the defensive, seemingly self-assured, quasi-hostile Jessica (Gevinson), the hang-dog, easily manipulated Warren (Cera), and the bullying, charismatic, and profoundly insecure Dennis (Culkin). Set in 1982, This Is Our Youth also captures a time that those of us who lived through it recall as often unsettlingly out of joint.

Like so many baby boomers born in the 1960s, Jessica, Dennis, and Warren are the children of liberal parents, the offspring of those who helped make the '60s an era rather than mere decade. If you were raised by parents with left-leaning principles (or by "the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism," as Jessica describes them), the advent of the '80s was confusing to say the least. Where there were once Kennedys, there was now Ronald Reagan. "Greed is good" became a national mantra. Yuppies became a thing.

Lonergan ably captures that sea change and the stumbling confusion. At lights-up, we meet Dennis, zoned out in front of a TV the size of a packing crate. He's soon joined by Warren, a best friend who doubles as a doormat for Dennis' volatile onslaught of physical and verbal abuse. Warren arrives with a sack of serious cash he's stolen from his father and the news that he's just been kicked out of his house. The bones of the plot deal with whether the young men will be able to return the cash before Warren's father sends a goon squad of quasi-mobster "business associates" after them, and whether Warren will succeed in hooking up [with?] Jessica.

But the action in This Is Our Youth is secondary to Lonergan's dead-on dialogue and the characters it creates. Jessica, Warren, and Dennis will change profoundly by the close of the roughly 24-hour period during which the story unfolds. Warren begins like a kicked puppy, dutifully accepting barrages of abuse as his lot in life. Dennis is all belligerence and grandiosity, a young man who honestly believes that his friends should be grateful he deigns to pay attention to them, even if that attention amounts to relentless degradation. Jessica is prickly, precocious, and argumentative, sheathing herself in an armor of contentiousness as a means of self-protection.

Shapiro draws compelling performances from her young cast. Gevinson (who knows from precocious - the Oak Park native was covering fashion for the likes of Elle and Harper's Bazaar as a middle schooler) is all sharp edges and philosophical defensiveness. Jessica's emphatic, I-know-I'm-right treatise on the personal evolution that takes place between twentysomething and thirtysomething ("...all your most passionately held beliefs are all gonna be completely different and it's really depressing.") is a small, angry masterpiece of disillusioned youth.

Culkin brings comedy and the pathos to Dennis' blowhard exterior. When he finally crumbles under the weight of a body-blow wake-up call in the second act, the hard-earned moment is potently bitter, incrementally sweet, and shocking.

As for Cera, you can practically see the crushing weight of self-loathing and pathetic yearning pressing down on him in the early scenes. Warren's transformation isn't flashy or obvious: It's a subtle, tentative step forward that makes This Is Our Youth a piece that's lined with the hope and joy within the overarching storm clouds of disillusionment and cynicism.

Costume designer Ann Roth's understated but authentic '80s garb carries just a whiff of early Madonna (for Jessica), and captures the seeking slacker look of the era for Dennis and Warren. Todd Rosenthal's set design is at once universal and highly specific. We're definitely in the apartment of an entitled '80s white boy, but without the touchpad telephone and that big, boxy television, the place could be the natural habitat of any urban male in the throes of figuring out who he is and what he's doing with his life.

Sad, funny, and straddling a tightrope between despair and hope, Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth is not the most substantially plotted drama in the world, but with a killer cast, gifted director, and pitch-perfect dialogue, Lonergan's slight narrative becomes a visceral, authentic, and completely compelling portrait of disaffected youth slouching toward that amorphous state known as adulthood.