Monday, January 14, 2008

Gurnet doesn't waste its Youth

Chelsea Cipolla and Jonathan Popp in This is Our Youth.

This weekend was "load in" for Blowing Whistles, and as I've thrown my back out (yes, I know, making me even more crotchety than usual), I found myself able to take some time off and check out a few other shows around town.

The first of these was Gurnet Theatre Project's This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's take on spoiled, and despoiled, teens on Manhattan in the Reagan era. Gurnet's Dog Sees God got raves last year (alas, I missed it), and it's likewise clear from Youth that they are a company to watch: director Brian C. Fahey is a sensitive craftsman, and the three actors in his cast are all welcome additions to the local scene.

Lonergan's play is essentially a meandering look at two young men - the late-teens Warren and his drug-pusher idol, Dennis - who clumsily burn through (or snort) a cache of money stolen from Warren's dad (who of course doesn't love him). The script is perhaps a bit too movie-derivative for its own good; in his tale of stupid white kids drifting toward danger, Lonergan recycles at least one too many tropes from Quentin Tarantino: the casual drug use, the ditzy/slutty chick, the sexual ambiguity, even the obligatory briefcase stuffed with cash, they're all there (prior to being recycled AGAIN by people like Stephen Adly Guirgis). Well, at least give Lonergan props for being the first on the scene (Youth dates from 1996), and for delivering several arias of adolescent anomie that still ring true.

These long exchanges have earned for the play a certain cult status - movie stars who want quick stage cred often star in it - and the Gurnet cast is mostly up to the challenges surmounted by Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Casey Affleck, etc., etc., even if they don't quite conjure the play's 80's atmosphere (or its setting, the Jewish enclaves on the Upper West Side; in these actors' mouths, ironically anti-Semitic lines like "I am Jewlius Caesar!" go slightly wrong). Jonathan Popp brings a credible edge, and a rangy sex appeal, to the motormouthed, self-dramatizing Dennis, while Steven Rossignol provides well-crafted, thought-through support as Warren - although he doesn't have quite enough excitable, geeky vulnerability to carry the show once he's the focus. The real news of the production, however, is Chelsea Cipolla as the flakily argumentative Jessica. Cipolla pretty much takes the stage on her entrance and never lets go, in a performance that's not only an early candidate for best of the year, but should earn her shots at roles on larger stages. We eagerly await more from Ms. Cipolla - and from the Gurnet Theatre Project.

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