Catcher in the Rye for MTV,
potheads and the Reagan “me” decade
is all about THIS IS OUR YOUTH
Custom Made Theatre Company opens their 17th season in a new home in the hub of San Francisco Union Square District. Artistic Director Brian Katz opened his 99 seat venue at 533 Sutter Street, with a soldout crowd for his new season featuring Kenneth Lonergan's THIS IS OUR YOUTH. CMTC has always served up edgy theatre in SF as it has moved from venue to venue, first at the 50 seat house in SOMA to the Church near Civic center, and now to this former home of the SF Playhouse. This coming of age Reagan era youth story of three lost teens searching for love, is the perfect for their new venue. “This is Our Youth is more than a slice-of-life play”, says director Katz, “it is about a fascinating society-shifting period when the children of 60’s liberals, who had witnessed their parent’s disillusionment, struck out on their own – but without much hope for finding meaning. In addition, it’s a superb piece of writing for the theatre.”
THIS IS OUR YOUTH is a three character play dealing with real issues youth faced in the late 80’s, and dialogue very core to that age. Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 break out work fits the time and loss of Holden Caulfield subtext, mixed with stolen money and cocaine. Lonergan’s script is tight and the dialog fast and real for the three youth in the center of the story. The cast Dennis, David Raymond; Warren, Sam Bertken; Jessica, Katie Robbins, three excellent local actors. The talented Bertken plays a lost and immature 19 year old with a bag of stolen money from his dad's drug funds. Bertken is wonderful in this role and it is a perfect fit creating the believable body language of a teen in flux. He lands at his friends, low end apartment. Raymond is also excellent as a the drug dealer (Dennis), a handsome bully in his early 20’s driven to push any button he can when cross talking with Warren. The 19 year old also brings a suitcase of childhood toys and memories, a perfect subtext for his missed childhood. Dennis later takes the case of memoires to sell to cover the stolen money. Lonergan adds a female to the first act, Jessica played by the skillful Katie Robbins, and we get that angst coming-of-age novela a Catcher in the Rye for MTV, potheads and the Reagan “me” decade.
The plot stays simple but Lonergan word play is thick with subtext and a drive to push the passion of the two guys much like lost pups fighting for turf. The stolen cash and a baggie of cocaine add some clever staging and action. Director Katz is excellent having the two boys use the entire space including an intense match of tossing a football around the room and throwing the apartment into chaos. When Jessica the idealistic fashion student enters and Warren falls for her, the clumsy sex scene is comical and both actors are superb at their comic timing. Katz direction brings out an honest performance for the three on stage. Easy to watch and listen too, Bertken deadpan body language explodes into Tennessee William's passion as our sympathy for Warren heightens in the second act. Dennis says to Warren "I'm like the basis of your personality... I'm like a one-man youth culture for you pathetic assholes. You're gonna remember your youth as like a gray stoned haze punctuated by a series of beatings from your fuckin' Dad, and like, my jokes." The two actors have polished timing and the toss punch fighting and tumbling they do, choreographed by Jon Bailey adds much to the passion of their friendship.
*Warren, is younger, and takes issue with Dennis’ take of the profits. “Don’t ever try to out-Jew me, little man. I’m twice the Jew you’ll ever be. I’m like a Jewish god. I’m like, Jooooolius Caesar,” a great line and a reference to Lonergan’s connection to his Jewish roots. *Kenneth Lonergan might just be one of the most important American Jewish writer for stage and screen today and very few realize he is Jewish. The playwright was born in 1962 to an Irish father and a Jewish mother who divorced when he was very young. His mother’s grandparents were from Russia and Austria. Growing up half-Jewish and half-Irish, (Lonergan also likes to riff on the differences between Jewish guilt and Catholic shame.) Had he kept his mother’s maiden name, Milch, he might have been more widely regarded as a Jewish writer. Lonergan tells *Theatre and Dance Magazine “As everybody knows, you write best about themes you know something about, and when you can draw the particulars from your life, you don’t have to make as much up,” he said. “I tend to be very literal about this. In [his 2011 film] Margaret, the main character was half-Jewish. In (his play) The Waverley Gallery, there’s a character with a Jewish mother and an Irish father. THIS IS OUR YOUTH wouldn’t really be right if they weren’t Jewish. So, I don’t think I’m any more or less Jewish in my writing than I am in my life.”
The subtext of the jewish theme rides at a low level but keeps the back story of the characters interesting. The set is designed by Stewart Lyle, fills the stage with nice subtitles that give you the backstory of Dennis, and some ideas about his buddy Warren. It's fun to see signs of 1982, a dial phone with the classic long cord, all of Liz Picurro props fit the era. Sound designer Ryan Lee Short, mixes 80’s sounds and music, in the small space, mics are not needed. The needle drop sound easily brings back the mood you would find in a young adults bedroom. The lighting was simple, designed by Maxx Kurzunski who was careful to use the lights from the windows to set the mood of the room. If you have yet to visit Custom Made Theatre Co., this is the perfect play to experience the company's mission to produce theatre that awakens social conscience. THIS IS OUR YOUTH runs through Oct 17, and I say this is a must see work now on stage at CMTC. Congrats to your 17th Season!
Custom Made Theatre Company Presents
This is Our Youth
Directed by Brian Katz
With Sam Bertken, Katie Robbins, and David Raymond
September 18 - Oct 17
Custom Made Theatre 533 Sutter St.
(at Powell) in San Francisco
For tickets and Season 17 info click on www.custommade.org
photos by Jay Yamada
*Reference from author Tal Kra-Oz, Theatre and Dance 12/3/14 feature on Kenneth Lonergan