Review: With terrific acting and direction, Fresno State’s outstanding ‘This Is Our Youth’ soars back to the ’80s
Warren is annoying.
Early in Fresno State’s exhilaratingly fine new production of “This Is Our Youth,” it’s easy to think of this 19-year-old character — a jumpy, earnest, upscale Manhattan slacker spending the early days of the Reagan Administration moping and smoking pot — as a bug you’d want to squash. Try not to scream as you experience Warren’s default interface with the world: He’s overly talkative. He hovers. He pesters while you’re on the phone. He whines. He’s so starved for attention/validation he practically pees, puppy-like, on your rug.
Pictured above: Carlos Sanchez, left, and Wade Pierson in ‘This Is Our Youth.’ Photo: Fresno State
But there is something mixed in with that coat of insecurity, a tuft of toughness, so to speak, that illuminates Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, profanity-laced, drug-fueled, philosophically weighty script. Young people like Warren change. Sometimes even in the course of just one weekend. The remarkable thing in this beautifully acted and directed play is that you feel that transformation.
For me, that moment came at an abrupt and definable moment late in the second act, after a wild weekend of drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll and intense conversations. (I’ll share that moment at the end of this review, after I’ve warned away anyone wanting to avoid spoilers.) Other audience members might not feel the same sense of precision as I did when it comes to Warren making that shift from adolescence to adulthood. For them, it might be less like flipping on a light switch and more like the way the temperature of a room changes gradually when you turn on a heater. But Warren will likely look back on this wild weekend as a turning point in his life.
And it’s fascinating to be along for the ride. This production is a must-see of the Fresno State theater season.
Related story: FOR CARLOS SANCHEZ AND TYLER MURPHY, IT’S WARREN TIMES TWO IN FRESNO STATE’S ‘THIS IS OUR YOUTH’
“This Is Our Youth” (which runs through Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Woods Theatre) is a small play, with only three characters, and director Brad Myers opted to populate its world with two different casts that alternate performances. On opening night I saw Carlos Sanchez in the role of Warren, and I was very impressed. (I had the opportunity a few days before that to interview Sanchez along with Tyler Murphy, who shares the role of Warren, and I have no doubt that Murphy brings the same kind of intensity to the character. Acting coach Leslie Martin deserves a shout-out, too.) Sanchez commanded the evening — he’s on stage pretty much the entire time — and was exceedingly well prepared in the role, as was the rest of the cast: a terrific Wade Pierson as Dennis, Warren’s drug-dealer best friend (alternating the role with Andrew B. Mickelson); and a likewise excellent Kathryn Deanna Andres as Jessica (alternating the role with Brianne Avina), a young woman who emerges as Warren’s romantic interest.
Jeff Hunter’s set depicting the interior of a ratty New York studio apartment, with its scary, foodless fridge and mismatched dining-table chairs, is nicely atmospheric. Yet Lonergan’s pointed script is not about the underclasses. Instead, both Warren and Dennis represent the ultimate excesses of yuppiedom: They’re both from wealthy families and have the financial cushion to slum it — and smoke a lot of pot — instead of taking serious steps into adulthood. The triggering event of the play, in fact, involves Warren swiping $15,000 in cash that his abusive businessman father leaves unattended. A complicated drug scheme to make more money ensues, and some other wild stuff, too.
I am fascinated at how Warren’s destiny on this fateful weekend is so dramatically shaped by the other two characters. Dennis, the alpha male of the pack, takes for granted Warren’s discipleship, and treats him almost as abusively as the businessman father. (At one point a puffed-up Warren reveals that he’s used some of the money he stole to spring for a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Dennis doesn’t miss a beat before chastising him for his lodging choice, mocking him for not selecting the obviously superior Pierre or Carlyle hotels.) There are patterns in Warren’s life, and breaking free of abusive relationships is necessary for redemption.
It’s Warren’s connection with Jessica that really sizzles in terms of Lonergan’s intellectual musings, however. She is looking to party on this eventful night, perhaps score a little cocaine, but Jessica is no cerebral lightweight. She recognizes a kindred thinking soul in Warren, and some of their conversations are an absolute joy of words colliding with ideas.
Jessica is intrigued (and upset) by the idea that when people grow up, their personalities often change radically, like an insect going through a metamorphosis stage. “What you’re like now has nothing to do with what you’re gonna be like,” she tells Warren. “Like right now you’re all this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be.”
A tummy-tuck doctor? It’s hard to imagine. With its intimations of drug mortality, “This Is Our Youth” seems to flit effortlessly between deadly seriousness and a celebratory whimsy. Which brings us to the moment where the play “clicked on” for me, like a light switch. (This is when the spoiler alert kicks in.) Dennis reveals that he wants to be a movie director. He asks Warren if he’d be a good one.
Warren replies bluntly: “I have no idea if you have any talent.”
Dennis is floored. An earthquake just rocked the territory of this friendship, and the damage is drastic.
When the play ends just a few minutes later, I really couldn’t tell you if Warren — so smitten by Dennis just a day earlier — will even bother seeing his friend again.
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Which is what ultimately gives the play its optimistic sheen. People change. Especially young people. There’s something comforting in that. If all of us were completed baked into our personalities and outlooks before we were out of our teens, it would certainly rob the world of a lot of spontaneity.
What I don’t think will change, however, is the talents of the fine young actors who grace this play. I predict great things ahead for them.