GLOUCESTER — It’s almost as if a question mark should be appended to the title of Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,’’ now at Gloucester Stage Company in a raw and unsettling production directed by Lewis D. Wheeler.
No matter how much certitude they might summon in any individual confrontation, a certain bewilderment can often be detected on the faces of Lonergan’s three young protagonists as they stumble through an alternately purposeless and frenzied night and day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1982. This is what our lives add up to? This is our youth?
Well, yes, apparently it is. That fact seems to land with especially pronounced impact on Warren, an aimless but sadly self-aware 19-year-old played by Alex Pollock. There are signs that deflating truth has also dawned on Jessica (Amanda Collins), the aspiring fashion designer whom Warren is smitten with, and even on the short-fused, musclebound, drug-dealing Dennis, portrayed by Jimi Stanton.
In Stanton’s energetic portrayal, Dennis registers as a cross between Kent, the one-upping frenemy in Neil La-Bute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,’’ and Jimmy Porter, the volcanic center of John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.’’ As Osborne did with Jimmy, Lonergan lets Dennis rant too often, which makes this alpha dog’s barking a bit wearisome after a while.
What perpetually inflames Dennis is the general haplessness of his friend Warren, who is hanging out at Dennis’s apartment (designed with an acute eye for period detail by Jenna McFarland Lord) with $15,000 Warren stole from his father. Dear old dad is apparently a shady character with dangerous connections.
“I mean, this definitely crowns your career as an idiot,’’ Dennis tells Warren. But he soon overcomes his dismay and suggests they use that money (before Warren returns it to his father) to make some for themselves by buying and selling cocaine. Even though he is stoned — he and Warren appear to get stoned at every opportunity — Dennis proves capable of rapid-fire calculations of profit margins that make clear just how good a mind is being wasted.
There’s nothing moralistic about Lonergan’s tone, though. “This Is Our Youth’’ is not a “Just say no’’ antidrug sermon. Nonetheless, while watching the play it’s impossible not to ponder how tricky a route it is through what Clark University’s Jeffrey Jensen Arnett has called “emerging adulthood,’’ even for children of affluence like these — and how much more challenging the usual rites of passage become when you add drugs to the mix.
In this trio, Jessica is by far the most together, the only one whose relationship with her parents is nontoxic, and the only one whom you can envision having a future. Still, there are touching, half-hidden layers of confusion and uncertainty to her that Collins captures in her sensitive performance. Collins’s Jessica is drawn to Warren and perhaps on some level wants to save him, but she also seems rightly wary of succumbing to the entropy that has nearly swallowed Warren whole.
Few Boston-area actors are better at conveying a quality of lostness than Pollock. In Annie Baker’s “The Aliens’’ (at Company One) as well as David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones’’ and Chekhov’s “The Seagull’’ (both at Wellfleet’s Harbor Stage Company), the actor has demonstrated an exceptional knack for portraying guys who are either burned out or teetering on a psychological edge.
Warren is both — and as good as Pollock was in those earlier performances, he’s even better in “This Is Our Youth.’’ Pollock’s Warren comes across as not just wounded but utterly broken inside. He wears a “Star Wars’’ T-shirt beneath a flannel shirt (costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley) and at least a day’s growth of beard. His hair looks as if it hasn’t been washed in a while. Still mourning the sister who was murdered by her boyfriend a decade earlier, Warren lugs around a suitcase filled with poignant mementos of his childhood and adolescence: action figures, albums, games like Twister, an Etch-a-Sketch.
In Pollock’s portrayal, Warren seems to flinch not just from the words of others, but from his own, even as he speaks them, as if every sentence he utters is a concession to a game he no longer wants to play, a weary existence he can no longer abide. Warren is stuck in a dead end and he knows it, and what you see in his eyes is the fear — or is it the knowledge? — that there’s no way out.