Burning Down the House
Back in the early '80s, long before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his goons "cleaned up" New York City, the Big Apple reeked from the spoils of Reagan-esque decadence. The dollar was mighty, AIDS was just a frightening rumor, cocaine was the drug of choice, and disco was nothing more than a mirror-ball of memories. A new wave of music, from the Talking Heads to the Clash, filled the clubs and streets with an intellectual nihilism that became the mantra for a new generation of Americans who found themselves lost inside a world built on easy sex, insidious drugs and capitalistic greed.
This bleak terrain provides the backdrop for Kenneth Lonergan's funny, smart and wickedly cynical script This Is Our Youth, now running at Atomic Cafe. Whipped into an amphetamine rush of energy by director Stephen Aleman, the play rips into the corpse of '80s Americana, revealing the effects of a throwaway lifestyle on the children born into it. Dennis (Drake Simpson), Warren (Patrick Reynolds) and Jessica (Erin Elizabeth Kidwell) are three kids caught in that wasteland period of life between 19 and 21. Neither children nor fully grown adults, the postadolescents who populate Lonergan's dark vision spend a long night getting high, getting laid and raging against their parents as they claw their way toward maturity and try to make meaningful connections in a world that values money over everything.
Warren shows up at his best buddy's pad one night with a shoe box stuffed with cash and a suitcase full of toys he has collected since childhood. A 19-year-old runaway with nowhere to go, this skinny puppy of a man has jumped out of the frying pan of his home life -- his wealthy father regularly beats him -- and into the fire of Dennis's solipsistic weirdness. Turns out that Warren, after a fight, has stolen the box of dough from his father, and now he doesn't really know what to do with the $15,000.
Dennis, however, is an entrepreneur of the highest order. A drug dealer by trade, he hatches a plan to parlay the cash into even more illegal currency. They'll buy some blow wholesale, sell it fast, sneak the 15 grand back into Warren's house and spend a night on the town getting high.
This stoner friendship from hell is articulated through a teenage patois riddled with infantile slang. Warren, who's smart enough to carry on a lengthy conversation about the effects of Reaganomics on "civic activities," is reduced to calling his father's girlfriend a "whore" and couching every statement in the sort of street language that reconstructs the world as a dry desert of empty moments. Employing a numbing string of teenage clichés, Warren tells Dennis about the terrible night his father kicked him out: "[Dad] comes home and he's like, 'This apartment smells like pot all the time.' And I'm like, "Yeah, 'cause I'm always smoking it.' Then he's like, 'I want that smell out of this house.' And then he's like, "No, actually, I want you out of this house.'And I was like, 'Whatever.' " Though this night clearly represents one of the most terrifying of his short life, Warren is so dissociated from his feelings that he's unable or unwilling to attach any depth to his fears.
Dennis, on the other hand, rails against the world with diatribes and obscenities. He calls his best friend a "sniveling, little obnoxious punk" and argues that observations such as "You're a fucking idiot" and "Nobody can stand to have you around" are merely pieces of good advice for Warren, who needs to get a grip.
The real irony, of course, is that Dennis's cruel observations apply more to himself than to his friend. For Dennis -- Simpson plays him with an astonishing crush of pent-up rage -- is an angry young man who's desperate and lost in the city. His own father is a famous painter suffering from prostate cancer. And because Dennis lives in the decade that practically invented the artists-as-diety mentality, he's haunted by the fact that he will soon lose his father, whose death will only underscore his own measly existence as a 21-year-old bicycle messenger and pot dealer. He directs his crisis of faith onto his friends. In a series of hilarious telephone conversations with his girlfriend, we discover that she, too, is victimized by his brutality. He screams into the receiver, calling her a "psychotic monster."
These young men flail and fight against their imminent adulthood since it offers them no solace, only more of the loneliness they've experienced at home. Warren hooks up with Jessica, and though they like each other, they're ultimately unable to connect. Meanwhile, Dennis can tell his girlfriend he loves her only by telling her he despises her.
These troubling narratives go right to the heart of a lonely decade in American history, when art was all about money, when families fell apart as fast as they were put together and when drugs held out the hope to make everything better.
This Is Our Youth runs through Saturday, May 13, at Atomic Cafe, 1320 Nance Street, (713)222-ATOM. $12.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events