Shining through

Top-notch acting makes this Asolo Conservatory offering a must-see

click to enlarge DAZED AND CONFUSED: Juan Javier Cardenas (left) and Matt Brown capture the foibles of young adulthood in This is Our Youth. - Frank Atura
Frank Atura
DAZED AND CONFUSED: Juan Javier Cardenas (left) and Matt Brown capture the foibles of young adulthood in This is Our Youth.

I know of no other theater group as unpredictable as the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. Of course, I realize that the Conservatory is a graduate-level school and that many of its actors have never before appeared in a professional production. But the fact is, Conservatory students are sometimes as talented as any veteran and are able to provide the open-minded spectator with the same satisfaction he or she would find at the Asolo Rep proper or at any other first-rate theater on the Florida west coast.

Further, the people who run the Conservatory schedule their seasons eclectically, offering plays that not only challenge acting students, but also provide audiences with otherwise unavailable theater experiences. Where but at the Conservatory did you find Shakespeare's seldom-unearthed Pericles? Where else David Lindsay-Abaire's hilarious Fuddy Meers or Conor McPherson's poignant The Weir?

True, Conservatory productions occasionally come across as amateur — The Parisian Woman a few weeks ago was a case in point, and other years have brought other failures — but then you come across a gem like Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things or Ruth and August Goetz's The Heiress, and all sins are forgiven. The moral of this story: Give these students a try. If you're not afraid to gamble a little, the FSU/Asolo Conservatory sometimes pays off handsomely.

Which is precisely the case with This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's deftly written examination of wealthy, wayward young people in the Reagan '80s. This serio-comic gem is about Dennis, a 21-year-old drug dealer living on Manhattan's Upper West Side; Warren, his geeky friend, son of a shady lingerie manufacturer; and Jessica, the fashion student who's also the object of Warren's affections.

What the play demands from its three actors is top-notch, carefully timed performances, and in two out of three cases — Matt Brown as Dennis and Juan Javier Cardenas as Warren — that's just what it gets. Watching Brown/Dennis threaten, mock and chastise his "friend," watching Cardenas/Warren absorb all the blows while still refusing to back down, you might easily think you were observing seasoned actors in an Off-Broadway or top regional theater production. And though Jessi Blue Gormezano as Jessica isn't quite at the level of her fellow performers, she still turns in a credible and likeable impersonation of a young woman who can't connect her feelings and her actions.

Tightly directed by Barbara Redmond, This Is Our Youth is a gratifying study of three young adults in whom innocence and experience are bafflingly mixed, who don't understand how much or why they need each other, and who can't calculate the risks that life poses to them at seemingly every moment. The play is notable enough for its psychological acuity and cannily crafted dialogue. But Brown and Cardenas' acting makes it something more: an artistically satisfying event. If you love good performances — or if you're near enough to your late teens or 20s to want to see what you might look like — this is a show you shouldn't miss.

The story it tells is reasonably simple. Warren Straub is a 19-year-old collector of antique toys whose father beats him up regularly and who's never has had much success with the opposite sex. One day his father tells him to get lost — and he does, but not before stealing $15,000 of the old man's money. After spending some of the loot, he takes the remainder to his friend Dennis Ziegler's apartment, and convinces Dennis to let him stay for a few days. But Dennis is sure that Warren's father is mob-connected, and that both young men are in danger until the stolen money is returned.

So drug-dealer Dennis comes up with a plan: to sell enough cocaine to make up for the missing amount, and then to return the whole $15,000 before any leg-breakers are sent their way. But love (or lust) intervenes: Warren convinces Jessica Goldman, whom he's long desired, to go with him to the Plaza Hotel for a night of champagne and sex. Before they're through, he's spent another thousand dollars, and made it all the more unlikely that he'll be able to return the stolen amount. Under all sorts of pressure — sexual, emotional, parental, legal — Warren finally has to try to make sense of his life. But it's not at all clear that he's capable of doing so.

Brown is masterful as the charismatic but wrongheaded Dennis. This is a character who believes that the world is so hostile that the only sane response is to be twice as hostile in return. Whether castigating Warren for the latter's failure to get laid or calling his girlfriend a "monster" over the telephone, Dennis is a creature of instant reflexes who only pauses to reflect on the life that he's living when a friend of his dies of an overdose of cocaine mixed with heroin.

Cardenas is just as effective as Warren. At first, he comes across as a little too odd to be believed, but eventually we see that the quirks in his personality are the most real things about him, that all his surface bizarreness is essential in protecting him against a belligerent, unforgiving world. Gormezano as Jessica isn't nearly confused enough, though; she seems pretty much self-aware, when ignorance-posing-as-sophistication would be more appropriate (and consistent with the other two characters).

James Florek's lovingly detailed set gives us Dennis' messy but spacious apartment, complete with posters of John Lennon, Che Guevara and Bruce Lee on the walls. David Covach's costumes, like Florek's lighting, could hardly be better.

And I suspect it'll be a long time before a better version of this tragicomic character study comes to the area. So even if you doubt that a mere acting school can present a first-rate production of a difficult play, quash your presumptions and check out This Is Our Youth. It's as good as — or better than — much of what you've seen in our professional theaters.

Which doesn't mean that the next Conservatory production, or the one after that, will succeed on this level. After years of watching these students come and go, I know just one thing: There's no predicting from show to show. Conservatory shows can be miserable — or wonderful.

This one's the latter sort. See it if you can.

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