Playwright: Kenneth Lonergan. At: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$82. Runs through July 27
Chicago-area theater audiences should consider themselves extremely lucky that producer Scott Rudin picked Steppenwolf Theatre Company's intimate upstairs space for his starry Broadway-bound revival of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth. This 1996 off-Broadway drama clearly has the potential to be the latest "I saw it in Chicago first" boasting moments when it comes to the Windy City's stature as a preeminent theater town.
What's first noticeable about the production is the star power attached. Recognizable actors Michael Cera ( Arrested Development, Juno ) and Kieran Culkin ( Igby Goes Down ) are respectively cast as the privileged and aimless drug users Warren Straub and Dennis Ziegler, while young fashion-world wunderkind Tavi Gevinson ( editor-in-chief of Rookie ) plays the role of fashion-design student Jessica Goldman.
Then there's the attachment of Tony Award-winning director and Steppenwolf Ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro ( August: Osage County, The Motherf**ker with the Hat ) interpreting an early acclaimed work by Lonergan, who would go on to pen esteemed screenplays for Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and Gangs of New York.
So, does this revival of This Is Our Youth live up to all the heightened expectations? Not quite yetbut that's what an out-of-town tryout is for.
No doubt Shapiro will need her cast to offer bigger performances when they move to the traditional proscenium space of Broadway's Cort Theatre. But for now she has everything finely articulated for Steppenwolf and maintains the company's in-your-face reputation and acting style.
Cera is hilarious as Warren, who steals $15,000 from his tycoon father when he's kicked out of the house. Cera is also a great foil to the very charismatic Culkin as Dennis, who is full of self-centered bravado. Both Cera and Culkin get across their characters' privileged lives, and are great when it comes to their startling Act II revelations that may change the course of their lives.
Gevinson doesn't have as much acting experience as her fine peers, but it's clear that she has the potential to catch up and hold her own with them. In the meantime, she does need to work on garnering some laughs from her Act II speeches and her overall earnestness of a young woman still trying to figure out her effect on men and what she ultimately wants out of life.
Although set in New York in 1982, This Is Our Youth still feels fresh and vital for our times ( even if the telephone technology onstage is antiquated ). Far from being yet another play that seemingly glamorizes troubled and drug-addled young adults, the work posits serious questions about the inequities of wealth and how it doesn't necessarily bring about happiness.
So get your tickets if you still can. Boast about seeing stars up close, but ultimately savor their fine performances in a work that sears with its wry observations.