BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — Kenneth Lonergan is the quintessential neurotic New Yorker with a cranky demeanor and a jaded outlook. Which is why he relishes the story about finding himself in the spotlight, in 1996, as the city’s hot playwright-of-the-moment. His breakthrough drama, “This Is Our Youth,” about a couple of disaffected, drug-addled young adults, had burst onto the scene to rave reviews. Suddenly Lonergan’s star was on the rise. But as he was waiting in line for the bathroom at intermission a week after the play’s opening, he overheard a middle-aged woman turn to her friend and remark, in a voice dripping with derision, “Well, it’s not my youth!”
Eyes twinkling, Lonergan, 50, chuckles at the recollection of getting smacked down out of his heady orbit by a couple of unimpressed, cynical New Yorkers after his own heart.
These days, though, the playwright seems to be dialing back the crankiness, cracking wise about trying to look more cheerful and not like a dour “Project Innocence beneficiary” for a photographer who’s about to snap his picture.
THIS IS OUR YOUTH
During an interview at a diner in the Hamptons — where he’s staying for the summer with his wife, the actress J. Smith-Cameron, and their 11-year-old daughter — Lonergan even sounds elated about the new revival of “This Is Our Youth” that’s being mounted at Gloucester Stage Company this month. The production previews Thursday.
Still, some people would allow Lonergan a little irritability considering the roller coaster ride he’s endured the past eight years. After a meteoric ascent in the late ’90s and early aughts — he was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001 for “The Waverly Gallery” and pocketed Oscar nominations for his screenplays of the 2000 indie hit “You Can Count on Me” and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” — Lonergan faced several frustrating career setbacks.
First there was the saga surrounding his long-delayed film “Margaret.” Bogged down in a tumultuous editing process and ensuing legal battles, the film was finally released in 2011, six years after it was shot, in just a few theaters and to little fanfare. It might have receded into obscurity if not for a coterie of critics and fans who championed the film through an online campaign, which led to a belated wave of acclaim.
There was also the negative early press that plagued Lonergan’s 2009 play, “The Starry Messenger,” which featured the playwright’s best friend, Matthew Broderick, whom he’s known since they were teenagers. The play, which Lonergan directed, struggled to get out of the gate with last-minute script changes, an actor who departed, and reports that Broderick was fumbling his lines. Despite the drama, the play opened to glowing reviews. But an expected transfer to Broadway never materialized because, the playwright believes, commercial producers got skittish due to the bad press.
All of which left Lonergan feeling more than a little deflated.
“There’s things that happen to you when you get older that burn you out and threaten to really make you want to give up and quit,” he says. “While I don’t feel like giving up now, I certainly have felt like giving up a number of times in the last few years.”
Despite his cantankerous reputation, in person Lonergan proves to be an engaging, gracious, and self-deprecating presence — laughing, joking, and even occasionally flashing a still-boyish smile.
Lonergan says he’s focused on the future, but today he’s talking about the past. Specifically the vivid memories of coming-of-age as a curious, articulate teenager in the late ’70s and early ’80s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which partly inspired “This Is Our Youth.”
In that blisteringly funny drama, set in 1982 at the dawn of the Reagan era, Lonergan paints a portrait of wealthy, wayward young Manhattanites smoking pot, dealing drugs, and struggling to navigate those often troubled, tormented years between adolescence and adulthood.
Lonergan says his own teenage years were filled with meandering philosophical discussions, impromptu creative experimentation, and copious marijuana use coupled with hours of record-spinning. “We spent a lot of time in these little rooms getting really stoned and talking a lot and thinking about things,” he says.
When he was 20, Lonergan remembers seeing the 1982 Barry Levinson film “Diner” with his tightknit group of friends and becoming enamored with its story of former high school buddies for whom the carefree-youth clock is fast running out.
“We loved it because those guys were kind of like us,” he says. “But they’re not going to be able to have that kind of life for much longer. That’s sort of what the movie is about, and it’s a little bit what ‘This Is Our Youth’ is about. You can’t sustain that particular lively existence where you just do things for the fun of them, with no goal in sight.”
In the play, Warren, a dejected 19-year-old, has impulsively absconded with $15,000 in cash from his domineering father. He’s holed up in the apartment of his friend Dennis, a drug-dealing dynamo with a foulmouthed wit. Dennis rips into Warren for his foolishness, but he’s soon hatching a plan to score some drugs and turn a tidy profit for themselves before delivering the money back to Warren’s father. Meanwhile, Warren decides to blow some of the stolen cash on a overwrought plan of seduction aimed at Jessica, the girl he’s been pining for.
Among the upper middle-class teenagers Lonergan hung around with, “no one wanted to be grown up. Everyone wanted to be a kid. And I thought that was odd and not good — but interesting.”
“Other people have to go out and work for a living,” he says. “We had the option not to. . . . We could [mess] up 600 times, and we’d still get our parents’ help.”
Lewis Wheeler, who’s directing the play for Gloucester Stage, appreciates the compassion that Lonergan has for his flawed characters, but also the cold-eyed clarity with which he writes about them. He also praises what he calls the “brilliant, rhythmic, colloquial poetry of the language.”
While the teenagers in “This Is Our Youth” struggle with inertia, the protagonist in “Margaret,” Lisa (played by Anna Paquin), becomes disillusioned by the growing realization she’s unable to affect the world in the way she once naively thought possible. The story begins when the young woman witnesses a tragic bus accident, which she and the bus driver had a hand in causing.
Interestingly, the roots of “Margaret” and its inciting incident can be traced to part of a scene involving Warren and Jessica that Lonergan discarded from an early draft of “This Is Our Youth.”
As for post-production drama and legal wrangling that engulfed the film, Lonergan says it’s mostly a blur at this point. He struggled to finish editing a version he could live with that was under the required 150 minutes. Then things spiraled out of control. One of the film’s producers, Gary Gilbert, is suing both him and co-producer Fox Searchlight, while Fox is suing Gilbert.
“It was a shame that it took so long and was so difficult because a lot of mental and emotional energy went in places that weren’t profitable or useful or stimulating except in a negative way,” Lonergan says. “But hopefully that’s all behind us now.”
He’s even grudgingly made peace, for the moment, with an artist’s most hated foe — the critics. He knows the film’s second life is, in part, due to their ardent advocacy.
“You’re not supposed to be grateful or owe anything to critics. It’s embarrassing,” he says, with a laugh. “Even when they like you, you’re not supposed to care.”