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The Pleasure of Youth

Beck Center offers a stimulating work by a young playwright.

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Michael Roache and Greg Vovos (right) play the good guys in Lonergan's - world.
  • Michael Roache and Greg Vovos (right) play the good guys in Lonergan's world.
Beck Center is quickly becoming our most audacious purveyor of theatrical delights. Currently on display is the bracing voice of Kenneth Lonergan, whose 1998 play, This Is Our Youth, is making its exciting Cleveland premiere.

The history of theater is a fascinating form of evolution: Without Homer, there would have been no Sophocles; without Plutarch's Histories, Shakespeare would have been at a loss. Sam Shepard fed off the myth of prairie machismo extracted from hundreds of westerns, and This Is Our Youth, Lonergan's first play, has its own line of pedigreed influences. They include J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, David Mamet's verbal one-upmanship, and Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

Youth focuses on two days in the lives of three affluent New Yorkers ranging in age from 19 to 21. They drift through the environs of upper Manhattan, clinging to odd bits of erudition (a love of film director Ernst Lubitsch), family mementos (a grandfather's 1914 baseball cap), and strange touches of perspicacity ("Like right now, you're all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but 10 years from now, you're gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be . . .").

Its two protagonists are the rudderless sons of powerful fathers, living off the family wealth. Both are unemployed college dropouts, frozen between adolescent rebellion and a longing for their lost childhoods. Warren Straub, a neurotic, sensitive misfit protectively carrying a suitcase filled with the toys of his not-too-distant youth, seeks refuge in the apartment of Dennis Ziegler, a magnetic, charismatic, manipulating slob. The very setup suggests a slacker variation of The Odd Couple. Together they play out a love-hate emotional Ping-Pong game.

However, the characters are far from prototypes cultivated in a literary hothouse. The writer has claimed they're a composite of the friends he grew up with. Just as Hemingway and Fitzgerald captured the vacuity and emotional deadness of young Americans set adrift after World War I, Lonergan does the same with his three troubled young adults, bereft of hope and motivation in the cocaine-saturated Reagan '80s.

Warren is the younger and more vulnerable of the pair, hiding from a father from whom he just stole $15,000. He is the writer's stand-in for Holden Caulfield. His host, Dennis, is the kind of charming schemer who can turn already hot water scalding. Completing the trio is Jessica Goldman, a 19-year-old college student caught between a yearning for hearts-and-flowers romance and a deep cynicism sewn from a surfeit of Deborah Harry-style hedonism.

The playwright is able to weave together a tapestry of utter verisimilitude: Discussions of the merits of the Plaza as compared to the Pierre reveal a whole social order; the casual mention of the death of a sister exposes the roots of alienation; a budding romance withers, in a society where trust has become extinct; a hopeless loser suddenly confronts his oppressor, thus offering the possibility of redemption. All this is done without the seams showing, revealing the work of a master craftsman.

During the course of the play, Warren and Dennis juggle dangerous drug deals and blighted romances. Dedicated to scam, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, they seek the perfect lay and ultimate high with weary intensity. Only after Warren's painful, truncated tryst with the mistrustful Jessica and the unexpected death of a drug-dealing acquaintance is there a glimmer of hope that these strangely likable screwups will pull themselves out of their morass.

The three-member cast vibrates with nervous energy. Joy Daniels humanizes and energizes the evening as Jessica. Conjuring up more than trashy sex appeal, she offers a multifaceted performance, simultaneously callow, tender, tawdry, and vulnerable. She is one of those rare actresses who summon a lifetime of hurts and defenses, just by the way she listens to her fellow performers. As Dennis, the spoiled Jewish boy, Greg Vovos has a raffish Bowery Boy charm. He delivers each line as if on the verge of a sneeze -- a peculiar but engaging eccentricity that unfortunately renders some of his lines inaudible. He has the leering predatory glee of an animated Disney wolf. Michael Roache as Warren has an odd, basset-hound appeal that makes him an interesting foil. He and Vovos hyperkinetically bounce against each other like two old-time vaudevillians.

Under the firm, wise guidance of director Joel Hammer, this endearing coterie of misfits comes together with an electric jolt.

It's rare in the theater world to encounter a work that is so fresh and out of the ordinary. Judging by Lonergan's excellent film debut, You Can Count on Me, and his subsequent two plays, he should prove to be a major asset to the arts.

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