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‘This Is Our Youth’ Theater Review: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin Get Serious in Broadway Debuts

Daring casting of the young actors pays off as Culkin delivers a performance with the surreal ferocity of Robert Downey Jr

How much does Judd Apatow owe to Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play, “This Is Our Youth,” which opened Thursday at the Cort Theater, in its first Broadway engagement?

The play has so many elements that were to become Apatow hallmarks: the awkward teenage sex (“Freaks and Geeks”), the vintage toy collection (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin”), the slacker abode (“Knocked Up”), and, of course, the drugs (all of the above).

Lonergan was there first to document that odd, unnamed territory between school and a real life, which for his 25-year-old-ish character Dennis (Kieran Culkin in a Broadway debut that’s a career breakthrough) may never arrive despite such remarkable potential, as he so tragically makes clear by play’s end.

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In the meantime, before Dennis’ film directing career and any other number of artistic endeavors can take off, he is living off his parents’ largesse in a spacious, relatively empty and viewless West Side apartment (effectively designed by Todd Rosenthal) and selling drugs and childhood memorabilia supplied to him by his younger friend, Warren (Michael Cera), who is there primarily to inflate Dennis’ ego by turning himself into a human punching bag. Oh, and Warren has just stolen several thousand dollars from his father’s apartment, so he’s also a child of privilege in that peculiarly Central Park West latch-key kid kind of way.

Cera, also making his Broadway debut, is the Cera we know from the movies: quiet, nerdy, low-key with a delicate imbalance to his delivery that fits Warren as perfectly as the baseball cap he treasures.  The “Arrested Development” star is genuinely funny and endearing, and if you’ve never seen him on-screen before, his Warren will be a revelation. For those who have seen him, it’s a performance without many surprises from an actor who has been here, done this male-waif thing. The good news is that he’s not playing to the camera, and his performance fills the theater. There’s also a real gravitas to his final scene when Warren makes a break from his slacker friend-idol. Cera with his feet somewhat firmly planted, on the verge of being grounded? Maybe that does qualify as a surprise. At the very least, it’s a good omen for this gifted actor.

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The words “total surprise” sum up Culkin’s achievement here. He appeared to be another of those young actors trapped in a series of wan boy-man roles, Warren being one of them, a role he’s essayed in other productions of “Youth.” Switching to the alpha Dennis for the first time, Culkin presents a perfectly reasonable young cynic, one who’s better than most slackers at selling drugs and conning his parents. There’s real businessman acumen on display here. While this very level-headed approach doesn’t make for the most theatrical act one; it gives a real jolt to his bizarre breakdown in act two, which he delivers with the surreal ferocity of Robert Downey Jr. at the top of his game. The interplay of narcissism and insecurity in Dennis’ monologues shows Lonergan at his best, and Culkin does the playwright full justice.

Kudos to director Anna D. Shapiro for her daring casting choice with Culkin, and making all of his scenes with Cera crackle with humor and pathos.

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Of course, there’s a third character in “This Is Our Youth.” She’s Jessica, the teenage girl who’s the catalyst that leads Warren to break from Dennis after an awkward night spent together at the Plaza Hotel. (They are rich kids.) It’s difficult to see what Shapiro wants to achieve with Tavi Gevinson’s loud, hysterical interpretation of Jessica. Gevinson, yet another Broadway deb, is editor of the website “Rookie,” and according to her Playbill bio, she has true cred in Generation Z (or whatever other letter of the alphabet today’s teenagers now claim). Regarding “Youth,” her entrance in act one recalls what happened when Leighton Meester arrived on stage to disrupt last season’s Broadway revival of “Of Mice and Men.” Meester’s caricature stood in stark contrast to the finely nuanced performances of James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and company. Coincidence or not, Shapiro also directed “Mice,” and one has to wonder why she compels, or allows, such over-the-top performances from her actresses while the male actors are so much better served by her direction. Gevinson’s Jessica needs to be dialed back to merely hyper and neurotic. She’s not the mad woman of Manhattan.