Upstanding Start: Upstart Productions at the Green Zone

NEWS FLASH: Upstart Productions wins a 2009 Column Award in the Best Non-Equity Play Category for its inaugural production of Topdog/Underdog.

As if haunted by the spirit of Kurt Cobain, lead singer with the 80’s grunge icon band Nirvana, Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth examines the tortured states of semi-aware existence of three upper class twenty-something drifters set in a New York apartment in the Reagan 80’s. More aptly, the play focuses on their pretenses, vulnerabilities and aspirations with the exacting attention to detail of a forensic investigator analyzing a suicide’s corpse. It’s intense. The stage atmosphere crackles with pervasive chill. Project X welcomes newbie Upstart Productions in this co-production, which completed its run at The Green Zone on March 22.

Playwright Kenneth Lonergan is best known for his award-winning screenplays (You Can Count on Me – 2000, Gangs of New York – 2002). This Is Our Youth, his first play, demonstrates his early interest in creating intimate, character-driven dramas. Lonergan’s characters are consumed with jaded ennui, self-recrimination and puffed up bravado. The play fascinates its audience with fragile relationship structures and the raging, relentless flow of its vivid language and naturalistic style. You don’t root for any particular character, but you sure want to know what makes them all tick and where they’re going, if anywhere.

On stage Matthew M. Fowler as pretentious, smart-ass bully Dennis, Drew Wall as Warren–a slightly younger “male ingénue” awaiting salvation out of an unfocused drug-enhanced fog, and Barrett Nash as alluring, contentious, pseudo-sophisticate Jessica present a triumvirate of idiot ne’er-do-wells, desperately seek validation while devouring the consumerist distractions of the 80’s that prevent them from establishing any self-worth.

Snappy banter trips off the tongues and machismo oozes from the pores of both young men. Characters a contrast in style, presence and temperament, Fowler and Wall instinctively posture and dig at one another as though engaged in an imaginary fencing duel. Forget the foils; get out the rapiers. Layer upon layer of coke and hemp-induced dialogue leads each character to monologues of monolithic emotional proportion. Both actors unleash just enough “sturm” to make the playwright’s point without surging into melodrama. This fine balance reflects their individual skills as artistic craftsmen and the strength and understanding of their director Rene Moreno. He had to take them up to that teeter-y edge, allow them to lean out a ways, then reel them back in before they tumbled to manic destruction. Great fun to watch. A tightrope act.

In waltzes calculating Jessica, tossing her full head of cascading red curls with complacent knowledge of how a little revealed flesh and that gorgeous mop will affect both men. She feigns an innocence that could make her one of the nastiest onstage tease-pricks short of David Mamet. Barrett Nash rises to the challenge, as prickly as any porcupine in heels, eye-liner and lipstick could be. Ultimately she does sleep with Warren, possibly a required rite of passage for both. At least AIDS won’t involve them in the play’s sequel. Nash creates a believable spoiled girl child struggling towards womanhood, picking fights over every perceived insult and some just for fun, for power. Again, restraint lends to her success, thanks to strong direction by Moreno. It pays to know what you’re doing when you have talent this ready and willing.

If playwright Lonergan were firing up the metaphorical grill to barbecue for his drinkin’, partyin’ buddies from the 1980’s, he’d marinade the bloody meat in a liberal dose of angst-ridden narcissistic nihilism with a liberal salt shaker’s worth of misogyny. Master playwright David Mamet he is not, bludgeoning the audience with fine-tuned balance of savagery and cunning in imagery and character. Yet this initial stage endeavor shows the promise that filled his coffers with later film ventures. It also affords a young company like Upstart Theater nuanced fodder to sink their artistic teeth into, particularly under the wise guidance of a seasoned director like Rene Moreno. Look for more high caliber performance from these “upstarts.” Rate this dish? Medium rare to extremely well done.

This Is Our Youth

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