Smells like Teen Spirit: exploring masculine angst
There is a story that when Elia Kazan was directing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, he had to keep re-doing the actors' blocking because people could not take their eyes off Brando--how in Brando's hands Streetcar was not about Blanche, but about Stanley. I was reminded of this story as I watched the Theater and Dance Department's production of This is Our Youth.
The play is about three rich, Jewish young adults and their dabbling in sex, drugs and self-discovery...or not. Warren Straub (Charlie Diamond '12) is the son of a lingerie tycoon. Having fought with his father about his drug use, Warren packs his collectibles collection, steals $15,000 of his father's money and runs away to his hero and friend Dennis Ziegler's (Alex Bassett '10) apartment. Together they make plans to sell drugs, make money and have a good time with some girls. The plot is not that important, but the play's exploration of embattled and embittered masculinity and chaotic youth is riveting. The play's main concern is with the choices Warren will make over the course of two days: will he become like Dennis, a truly despicable and fractured human being, or will he be able to pick up the fragments of his personhood and face his problems?
Technically, the choices made enhanced this chaos and made for a completely realistic apartment. The lighting was well placed, whether it was sunlight streaming into the apartment or fluorescent light in the apartment. The set perfectly mirrored the confused state and ambivalent privilege of these children, overstuffed with books and records, yet completely bare in other respects: a simple bed, an empty fridge, clothes strewn about.
The small cast requires extremely adept actors who can interact and react well to each other. Diamond's physical decisions, his stooped shoulders, his downcast face, his choices of stillness, his moments of childish glee, all contributed to the immaturity and insecurity of the character. When he and Ali Reader '12 as Jessica were on stage together, they played the awkward and tender moments for all they were worth. There was a particular scene in which Jessica touches Warren's arm as she talks to him. Diamond's choice to look down and let his eyes linger on the spot she touched him was delectable. So much was conveyed by that simple look.
I can't remember the first time I saw Bassett on stage (probably when I was an impressionable freshman). But I was instantly smitten; I had never seen such intensity in a student actor. He was absolutely captivating, both then and even more now, which is why I started with the Marlon Brando reference. Bassett dominated during the scenes he was on stage, partly because Dennis, as written, is such a huge presence, and partly because Bassett does such a great job understanding and conveying the complexities of this character. He bullies Warren both verbally and physically, degrading and belittling him constantly. He acts out the insecurities fostered by his dysfunctional family--his (symbolically) castrated father; his domineering mother--in the relationships he has with other drug dealers, with Warren, with his girlfriend. Underneath every hypermasculine performance--the bullying, the boasts of sexual prowess, the assertion that he could have been a somebody if he wanted to--is an insecure, little boy.
An uncritical performance would have just been shouting, passing over these nuances. Thankfully, it was not. Bassett's sense of timing, his delivery of abuses (he had the most convincing one-sided phone conversations), mannerisms, choices of physicality and especially the quiet moments in which he laid bare Dennis' vulnerabilities, were all combined for an intense and incisive performance.
As much as I loved Lonergan's writing for his male characters, I absolutely hated what he did with Jesscia. As the only female character, Jessica is woefully underdeveloped. This is not to discredit Reader, who did a great job with the material, making Jessica as spunky and three-dimensional as possible; it is that this play is concerned with masculinity and the relationship between Dennis and Warren, and Jessica feels like an afterthought. I would even venture to say that Jessica is there only to create the semblance of heterosexuality and to facilitate Warren's journey into manhood.
Overall, it was provocative theater with powerful performances that kept me captivated throughout.