Rachel Renaud, Carlen Escarraga, and Zac Scott in This Is Our Youth
Rachel Renaud, Carlen Escarraga, and Zac Scott in This Is Our Youth

It’s tough to watch This Is Our Youth at times, considering just a few blocks away our city’s fentanyl crisis continues to loom large.  Maybe that’s a good thing, especially considering Kenneth Lonergan’s cautionary tale can’t quite compete with the one playing out in real-life on the streets of Vancouver right now.

Even as Lonergan sets his play in 1982 New York City, it is surprising how this tale of three young people on the cusp of adulthood still manages to cut to the core today. Cellphones may have been replaced by phones with cords and social media gives way to real-life conversations, there is something that remains oddly compelling and relevant.  And while the transformation in its second act doesn’t quite ring true, there is a great deal to like in this inaugural production from Sticks and Stones Theatre.

Set in the Upper West Side apartment of twenty-year old Dennis Ziegler, This Is Our Youth follows a trio of young adults as they try to find their place in the world.  A small-time drug dealer, Ziegler comes from a place of relative privilege and dysfunction. Claiming his parents are happy to pay his rent just to keep him at arm’s length, his slacker lifestyle is only matched by an underlying anger.

In walks his friend Warren, a socially awkward young man who has stolen fifteen grand from his father, declaring them the proceeds of an unhappy childhood. Worried about Warren’s dad seeking retribution for money already spent, Dennis comes up with a plan to use some of the money to buy cocaine and resell it for a profit.  Complicating things is the arrival of Jessica, whom Warren attempts to woo by spending even more of the stolen money.  As with many of the harebrained ideas of this type, it isn’t difficult to imagine Dennis and Warren’s scheme doesn’t quite go according to plan.

As Ziegler, Zac Scott gives a cringe-worthy performance in the first half. Filled with a believable arrogance and bravado, the only thing missing is an inkling of vulnerability that would help soften the contrast in the second half.  As the interloper Jessica, Rachel Renaud gives a surprisingly vulnerable and layered performance given how little time she actually gets on stage.

While a solid ensemble, it is Carlen Escarraga as the social misfit Warren who gives the star turn here. While this sad character could easily become one-dimensional, Escarraga gives him such depth it is difficult not to root for him even as he is the master of his own fate.  The brunt of much of Lonergan’s dark humour, Escarraga rises above Warren’s caricature with a subtle understanding of what it means to be an outsider.

Escarraga does double-duty here as well, working with director Brett Willis as set designer. With the already gritty Havana theatre a solid choice as a venue for this urban drama, the duo fills the space with a flophouse feel that contrasts with the privilege of its characters.

A solid first outing by one of our city’s newest independent theatre companies.

This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Brett Willis. A Sticks and Stones Theatre production. On stage at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until January 14. Tickets are available online.