This Is Our Youth; The Pianist

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_thisisouryouthBy Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Benjamin Henson
Basement Theatre, Auckland | April 7-18

Kenneth Lonergan’s vision of spoiled and disaffected youth in 1980s Manhattan feels like it was written for today’s audiences. Sure, there are cultural references to a bygone era and an obvious lack of mobile phones, but the script contains a humanistic insight that is utterly timeless. A perfect example of how specificity of time and place can actually lend itself to capturing a universal experience.

Taking place over two days in a studio apartment, This Is Our Youth surrounds a thin plot involving some stolen money, which might as well be a MacGuffin, forcing awkward Warren to seek the help of his mean-spirited best friend Dennis. They spend the duration of the play actually doing very little, but the appeal of the play isn’t the action so much as the interactions themselves.

As the aggressive Dennis, Alex MacDonald hits all the right notes as a bully born from arrogance. It might not be the most original character, suffering from some one-note characterisation that never quite finds a sympathetic arc, but he’s highly watchable, especially when spouting off his notions of superiority. A narcissistic train wreck waiting to happen.

But it’s Ryan Duelieu who plays the the central character of the story, as sensitive and dorky Warren, who we are most invested in. It’s a lived-in performance by an actor who clearly feels very deeply for his character, nailing every beat and taking the audience along his ride of self-discovery.

Alex Jordan, as initially abrasive Jessica, may play second fiddle to MacDonald and Dulieu in terms of stage time, but her presence is essential to the humanity of the play. I’d go as far as to say that it’s her scenes with Dulieu that are the highlight of the entire show, carefully peeling back layers of pretense to reveal a compassionate and heartwarming need for connection.

Like his films You Can Count on Me and Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s script displays an ear for naturalistic dialogue and clear characterisation, though This Is Our Youth lacks some of the finer emotional complexities of the aforementioned works. The text could easily be accused of being self-satisfied and smug, relishing its own vocabulary, but that’s also sort of the point. For all their insightful observations, the characters fall short of any self-awareness, perfectly encapsulating the arrogance of no longer being children but not quite being adults either. In less talented hands, the characters run the risk of coming off as solely obnoxious. While this modest Basement production of This Is Our Youth doesn’t have the star factor of Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in the recent revival on Broadway, the Auckland talents of MacDonald, Dulieu, and Jordan more than hold their own, showing shades of authenticity beneath their articulate exteriors, warts and all. If there’s one thing that prevents the performances from being pitch perfect, it’s a slight excess on the side of volume and histrionics, exacerbated by the tight space upstairs in the Basement Theatre.

Director Benjamin Henson’s ability to convey visceral emotional truths is mostly put to good use here. He is effective in pushing the dramatic material of the play to unexpected heights, as well as injecting a restless physicality to what could be a very static piece. Unfortunately the tradeoff is some of the more nuanced and subtle moments get drowned out amongst the relentless angst.

The semi-realistic set by Christine Urquhart achieves an effective intimacy, creating a tiny New York apartment in a limited space. On the other hand, Thomas Press’s ambient sound design, used to bookend a few of the scenes, seems straight out of a psychological thriller, totally inappropriate for the tone of the show. While I understand the desire to highlight the darkness and grittiness of the subject matter, it’s jarring to say the least, and displays a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence.

So why should we care about these post-high school rich kids? Portrayals of jaded, misbehaving, and troubled youth are nothing new, but the characters and their feelings are undeniably relatable. This Is Our Youth is an act of consolation, reminding us that growing up sucks, but everyone’s got to do it. Though not without its flaws, this is a modest production that proves that you don’t need to go to Broadway to have a good time.

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img_thepianistBy Thomas Monckton
Directed by Thomas Monckton and Sanna Silvennoinen
Presented by Circo Aereo with Show Pony
Herald Theatre, Auckland | April 8-18

The show begins. A pianist prepares. He is behind the curtain. He attempts to get past the curtain. He struggles and struggles and struggles to do so. Eventually he manages to find a hole in the curtain to squeeze himself through, but not without having to contort his body with a display of impressive flexibility.

From the opening moment, The Pianist establishes its premise perfectly and succinctly: a man physically wrestles with trying to put on a piano concert. The description of “solo comic contemporary circus piece” doesn’t do the show justice. There’s something otherworldly about the show, as if unknown forces are out to sabotage him, but in a cartoonish rather than nefarious manner. The result is a beautiful disaster that evokes nothing but the warmest of feelings, while tastefully making a mockery of formal behaviour and propriety.

Essentially in the tradition of silent clowns like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chalpin, Thomas Monckton gives a tour-de-force performance as the pianist, earning every comparison to his predecessors. Like them, he’s a lovable character, not just someone capable of impressive physical stunts. There’s a spontaneity and naivety to his manner that feels unrehearsed, even if the intricate choreography of everything else is clearly the product of countless hours of hard work. Whether it’s as an acrobat, mime, clown or stuntman, Monckton’s talents are a pure and utter joy to behold.

Every so often the trajectory of the show veers into the realm of surrealism, as Monckton deviates from his objective to play the piano, just to amuse us with unexpected but welcome distractions. That he is able to charm the audience with nothing more than a chair and his dancing fingers when he wants to is a true testament to his abilities as a performer, displaying creativity even in the smallest moments.

It might be a disservice to call The Pianist a solo show, if only because the piano itself is so essential to the performance, the bull to Monckton’s ill-prepared matador. The entire construction and design of the insurmountable instrument is absolute perfection. Not to mention the use of the lighting and sound design as gags too. Everything is utilised for full comedic effect. No element in the show is wasted. Nothing is safe.

The Pianist is the sort of show you want to both rave about while saying as little as possible. It’s so infectiously enjoyable, but most of the joy comes from having completely no idea what Monckton will do next. It’s rare you see a show this original, every minute feeling fresh and vital. Those looking for something deadly serious should stay away, but if you want to be struck with absolute amazement, this is one recital you can’t afford to miss. A world-class show for all ages that will delight even the most jaded theatregoer.