Then midway through Act Two Warren has a bust-up with his new girlfriend, Jessica. The matrix for their split is a 1914 Chicago Cubs baseball cap purchased at the first game ever played at Wrigley Field and passed down to Warren from his grandfather. Jessica says she wants the cap, but she doesn't really. Warren says she can have it, but he doesn't really want to lose it. For just a moment, the play deftly reminds us of how easy it is for relationships to get snarled in the confusing maze of half-truths.
According to the script, as Jessica exits the apartment (and, alas, the play), she is supposed to leave the baseball cap on a table. But here Jessica hangs the Cubs cap on a baseball bat standing next to the front door. That brief visual image provides the perfect ending to the evening's most resonant exchange.
Witchy women: Stephanie J. Block (left) and Kendra Kassebaum (right) bring extraordinary performances to Wicked.
Earlier this year the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staged an involving production of Lonergan's Lobby Hero in the Studio. Now this second Lonergan play is the Rep's final offering in its debut Off-Ramp series at the Grandel Theatre. This Is Our Youth is not as satisfying as was Lobby Hero. But it does confirm Lonergan's facility for writing rich, multifaceted female roles. Jessica is a spindly mass of contradictions. She is so young, so old, so wise, so scared. Her arrival at the apartment midway through Act One infuses the evening with a much-needed sense of surprise. Why is she here? What does she want? Is she in danger? Kristina Valada-Viars is a wonderfully natural actress, halting and spontaneous and true. When she's onstage, This Is Our Youth actually seems to be about something.
In a production that has been tightly directed by John Ruocco, all three actors excel. Brian Petersson's self-absorbed Dennis is persuasively, obnoxiously reptilian. As the hapless Warren, Will Rogers is ingenuously charming. It's the play rather than the production that gives pause. Despite the mandatory spew of profanity and the onstage drug-taking and the obligatory flushing toilet, all this relentless realism doesn't add up to very much. Nor do the occasional references to American politics that are supposed to give the play "significance."
Every once in a rare while a movie like Rebel Without a Cause or The Graduate does succeed in capturing a moment in time. Since its debut nine years ago, Lonergan's drama has been proclaiming itself as an evocation of America's lost soul during the materialistic Reagan 1980s. Poppycock. To suggest that This Is Our Youth defines anything outside of its own myopic cokehead universe is to layer on a specious self-importance that simply does not exist.