“This Is Our Youth” ticks all the boxes. One may begin with the set: cluttered, noisy and painstaking. The crew took their time. Zappa and Bowie memorabilia, myriad disposable photos, a ziggurat of pizza boxes and of course a vinyl player adorn the shapeless space. A mattress with sheets halfway made, an adolescent’s token effort at rigor. Often with undergraduate theatre here, one encounters a “minimalistic” set, and doesn’t buy it; there is merely a masquerading of hastiness, of a show hanging by a thread. Here this is not the case.
Next, the bells and whistles. Jacob Osborne ’16 and Jamie Bogyo ’16 belong to the very sparse group of Yale undergraduate actors who hold theatrical sway when having a phone conversation onstage; one can briefly enjoy the possibility that there may indeed be a shrill, neurotic girlfriend or an entirely disappointed father on the other end. What’s more, Osborne is the first actor I have seen convincingly laugh on stage at Yale. The joy of watching actors cover the basics — clarity of utterance, laughing and looking like a human laughing, is utter relief.
Osborne imbues Dennis with Nelson Muntz-eqsue insult delivery (“You’re such a sniveling little obnoxious punk … an annoying loudmouth little creep”): The faux threats of his oratorial violence seep splendidly into a flabbergasted “You are so stupid, man” as he watches Warren continue to stumble into financial pitfalls.
One enjoys how comfortably the actors move about the stage — Dennis’ throwing trash into the bin, as he himself makes the noise of a fanatical audience; Osborne pours thought and energy into each and every gesture, his whole being an effort to make himself the tough guy, the hero, the glorious protagonist: a master class in the Latently Insecure Bully, that hallowed staple of Americana. Osborne’s sincerity in Dennis’ tenderness on the phone to his girlfriend alerts the audience to how performative his machismo has been.
Bogyo misses a trick, however, with the humor of Warren. He attempts goofiness, tries it on. However, the humor of Bogyo’s acting swells as the play proceeds, and he enjoys the ridiculousness of Dennis more with each beat. I challenge anyone to stifle her cringey laughter, à la Superbad or even Annie Baker, that emanates from Lucy Fleming ’16 and Bogyo’s initial interactions. He is better at pubescent melancholia than he is at warm folly, yet when he shares the stage with Fleming, the comedy is easy. One can also detect his time with the Whiffenpoofs; the music of his voice is well flaunted in his near-crying whinges. It should be said that a play about adolescence wouldn’t get off the ground without the audience’s innumerable violent cringes. This is triumphantly achieved. And for once not because actors are forgetting lines. To paraphrase a platitude, the audience cringes with the cast, not at them. It makes perfect sense that none other than Michael Cera, young America’s patron saint of awkwardness, has taken on this play.
The play abounds with thoughtful acting. Fleming has ensured that every gesture of Jessica’s, every tilt of the neck, her constant flitting of rogue hair behind her ear, every protective arm fold, corresponds to a gentle bump or scratch in the pair’s harmony, like the fuzz of the vinyl on the record player. Watching her wallow shamefully in the social consequence of coughing on a joint is sheer delight. Most notably, she nihilistically sighs during a hurried exit—yet another straining encounter with Dennis; her nonverbal sonic touches are as compelling as any of the play’s dialogue.
The whole work feels immediate. The lethal poignancy of watching the young voice anxieties about looking for their recent past and finding it little more than an obsolescing trinket is an inexorable reality for the Yale student, who so often is propelled forward with such momentum that any sense of place, of gratitude for the current or the immediate bygone, that she cannot help feel a twinge of something honest in what unfolds before her onstage. What could be more relevant than Warren’s tentatively voiced skepticism of philanthropy in his criticism of a social worker, questioning her “mission” and “moral stance”. Here, the tension between a desire to give back and “saviorism,” a word recently found to be flexing its muscles in the Yale zeitgeist, right alongside ‘mindful’ and ‘dialogue’ is delicately put forward. Apropos of relevance to a Yale audience, one smirks when one hears in passing Jessica’s last name: “Goldman.”
Take the line, “This is why nobody likes you, man.” This would be a difficult play to botch; every line feels like dining hall chit-chat, the teenage conversational equivalent of muzak, perennially trivial yet hormonally charged and inexorably painful. Fleming so touchingly and sincerely gives us the hopefulness of a girl who believes against her better judgment that someone she’s slept with has suppressed the urge to tell even his best friend. The audience, with Jessica, wishes against reason that such a world were possible.
Like a breakup, like a comedown or a withdrawal, like the whole process of growing up, the play is frightening, loud, dizzyingly unpredictable and almost nauseatingly punchy. Every bout of bad news is a glistening new pimple on a face recently accustomed to hair on its lips. “I’m completely stoned out of my mind on fear.” Dennis’s line could be Lonnergan’s, or Osborne’s, or anyone’s who has diverged from the acceleration into adulthood, and reflected upon the financial, hormonal and traumatic pathos of giving up childhood.