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EYE ON THEATRE

Blundering Youth, Beleaguered Adulthood

By JOHN SIMON

There can be little doubt that Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth” is one of America’s most charming plays. It and the film, “You Can Count on Me,” make Lonergan a winning playwright-cineast, even if his other efforts are less distinguished.

Situated in 1982 but timeless, this is the story of three young Jewish Upper-West-Side New Yorkers. Dennis Ziegler, 21, is a dropout, drug dealer, womanizer and junkie; Warren Straub, 19, is his endearingly naïve, worshipful friend and client; and Jessica Goldberg, 19, is a friend’s friend, a sweetly confused young woman, who may become Warren’s first bedmate.

Lonergan gets down their bravado and bumbling in letter-perfect language, with exquisite humor skillfully transitioning into melancholy pathos. Dennis, opportunist and bully, is brought to the edge of breakdown; Warren is at a loss what to do with a shlepped collection of memorabilia as well as a sizable sum stolen from his hated and hating father; and Jessica tries hard but uncertainly to be grown-up. All three have problem parents.

Such a précis does not begin to suggest the wit, charm and ultimate sadness of this wonderful play. At the 1996 premiere, it had, besides Mark Brokaw’s flawless direction, an unbeatable cast. There was the breakout performance as Warren of one of our finest actors, Mark Ruffalo, infusing gangling childishness with lopsided charm. Scarcely less winning was Josh Hamilton as Dennis, bossy and exploitative, especially of girls, exuding precariously precocious, amusing command. As Jessica, Missy Yager made confusion lovable, and fumbling self-assertion endlessly touching.

Today, the biggest loser is Michael Sera’s Warren. Though having had some success playing dolts on film and TV, he lacks even minimal charm, and throws away some of the funniest lines, but the audience loves him—a movie star, after all. Kieran Culkin is better as Dennis, but lets the negative aspects of the character unduly predominate. As for Tavi Gevinson, she registers as a knock-off of Scarlet Johansson, of whom one is more than enough.

Anna D. Shapiro’s direction may be favoring some overacting, especially from Jessica, but is otherwise satisfactory, as are Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting. Todd Rosenthal’s set cleverly extends well above the acting area to convey the overarching, depressing clichéd architecture. Altogether, a marvelous play, unkillable but sadly diminished.

Images of This is Our Youth by Brigitte Lacombe and courtesy of Broadway.com, except as otherwise designated.

Venue: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: By phone: 212.239.6200 or Telecharge.com. Perforances through January 4, 2015.

 

George Kelly (1887-1974) was one of the more interesting American playwrights of the first half of the past century, though his critically lauded plays tended to have short runs. The worthy Mint Theater Company has now revived his last produced play, “The Fatal Weakness” (1946), which, though starring the gifted Ina Claire, did not enjoy the merited run.

It concerns Ollie Espenshade, who after nearly 28 years of marriage begins to suspect her husband, Paul, of cheating on her with a lady osteopath. That unseen woman, an orphan, rather small and somewhat chubby, seems to have no other distinction than being submissive, presumably younger, and, above all, different.

Gradually, Ollie and her best friend, the widowed Mabel Wentz, with the help of one of the latter’s (likewise unseen) lady friends who enjoys sleuthing, tighten the net around the errant husband, who pretends to be playing golf at his country club when actually seeing his mistress.

Running parallel is the problem of the Espenshade daughter, Penny, married to traditionalist Vernon Hassett, and mother to an unruly three-year-old. Here the difficulty is that the Hassetts, without actually fighting, cannot agree on anything at all, and Vernon is beginning to absent himself more and more to escape from his wife’s egocentric feminism, something she stridently advocates without necessarily practicing.

What will happen in the two marriages is radically different, though in the case of Vernon and Penny, who adores her father, somewhat underdeveloped and the tiniest bit improbable.

Good about the play are the psychologically sound characterizations, perceptively observed middle-class lives, and smart, lively dialogue, always believable, intermittently funny, and sometimes even touching. The most persuasive relationship is the friendship between Ollie and Mabel, which, though innocent, may remind us that Kelly’s own, of 55 years and lasting until his death, was with a male partner, passed off to parents and the world at large, as his valet. The play, however, has nothing erotic about it, though succeeding in making the mundane crisp, and eventually even poignant.

Jesse Marchese has put considerable movement into the single well-designed set by Vicki R. Davis, as authentic as Andrea Varga’s sometimes by now droll-looking costumes. And the cast of six cannot be faulted. Kristin Griffith is an attractive and sympathetic Ollie, Cynthia Darlow a loyal and no-nonsense Mabel, Cliff Bemis (Paul) and Sean Patrick Hopkins (Vernon) dissimilar but equally persuasive husbands. Victoria Mack is a convincing Penny, uneasily growing out of her naivete, and Patricia Kilgarriff, as the maid, Anna, proves a weathered questioner of marriage.

A longish play, “The Fatal Weakness” is never boring, and particularly fascinating by never specifying just what that fatal weakness is. Is it Paul’s philandering or Ollie’s avoidance of meaningful confrontation, or is it the institution of marriage itself?

Venue: Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor, between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York, NY 10036. Box Office: 866.811.4111. Performances through October 26, 2014.

Images of The Fatal Weakness by and courtesy of Richard Termine.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

 

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