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This Conversation Is an Earthquake

Date: Sep 02, 2014

Kenneth Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth, now on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, begins with shenanigans. In 1982 a troubled kid named Warren gets kicked out of his house, so he steals $15,000 from his dad and scurries over to Dennis, his drug-dealing, narcissistic friend who lives by himself on the Upper West Side. As they try to figure out what to do with the money, these wounded young men hurl insults, make jokes , and accidentally break a few things. It seems like we're in for the proverbial wild ride.

But then comes the second scene. Dennis (Kieran Culkin) goes on a harebrained mission with his girlfriend, leaving Warren (Michael Cera) alone with Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), an uptight but perceptive fashion student with earnest theories about human nature. At first, the two circle each other like skittish animals, but eventually, they sit down and talk. Really talk. And little by little, they startle each other with their honesty. There's no shouting. Nothing gets broken. But they both get shaken from their city-kid armor.

That scene is arguably the heart of the play, which premiered Off Broadway in 1996, and crafting it requires an understanding of how the smallest gestures can shift an entire relationship. For director Anna D. Shapiro, that process begins with broadly investigating the characters and not necessarily worrying about what they do in a particular moment of the show.

"You always want to start with creating a character," she says. "If you go into it from the other direction---a beat by beat of 'this is what happens'---you might accomplish something, but there are two problems with that. One is that it's something that's accomplished by rote by the actors, which can be a bummer for them. The second thing, which is more detrimental, is that they never have an opportunity to show you something about the character. And you want to avoid that. You want to try to create conditions where everybody is firing on all cylinders."

For Shapiro, the holistic approach includes grasping what's underneath that Warren-Jessica scene. "A huge part of the impediment for both of them is their own pathology," says the director, who's transferring this production to Broadway after it ran this summer at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. "Who they think they are---the narrative they've written for themselves---keeps imprisoning them. It makes it harder and harder for them to connect, even though it's all they really want.

"I try to help [the actors] understand who they are and what they want, and if that gets integrated into their bodies, they can essentially walk into any situation and react as their character. They don't have to think about it. That's what you're always trying to do with actors---to help them so that when things happen, they don't have to think. They just are that person."

However, that's not to suggest that once the character work is done, Shapiro just heads for the green room and lets the play handle itself. The next step is sculpting the actor's choices, and she's doing that all over again now that This Is Our Youth has moved to the Cort. (It began previews on August 18 and officially opens September 11.) Putting the show in a new theatre means recalibrating almost every moment.

That's especially true of the climactic scenes, when intense conversations give way to monumental choices. "The scale had to change," Shapiro says, noting that the Cort has over 1000 seats and the Steppenwolf space has less than 300. "You always have to make sure that at some point in the play, somebody up there is in danger. And what reads as danger from five feet away or ten feet away could seem like a flatline from thirty feet away."

She continues, "So performances change. It doesn't mean they don't feel what they felt in Chicago. It just means that at certain points, they have to feel it more. That's the last thing I'm trying to crack."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photos by Brigitte Lacomb