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Where the Wild Things Think They Are

"This Is Our Youth" gets into the drug-filled apartments and minds of the 1980s.

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During the course of the weekend the audience spends with Dennis, Warren and Jessica in the Firehouse Theatre's production of "This Is Our Youth," the main characters blow through a robust supply of marijuana, spill an even more impressive quantity of cocaine and ruminate on the fate of their fat acquaintance, Stu, who died after doing too many eight-balls with Brigitta, a Dutch backpacker he'd just met.

Not to worry. These are good old-fashioned Manhattan 20-somethings, and because their parents pay for their cramped one-bedroom apartments, they have more leeway to screw up and more time to hone their one-liners. The drugs and tragedies (once-removed) mostly provide grist for the nonstop witticisms that make up Kenneth Lonergan's script.

Warren, Dennis and Jessica are clever, likable brats. Warren's an Oberlin dropout living in an abusive tangle with his father in an apartment overlooking Central Park. Fed up with the drama, he steals $15,000 from Dad and hides out for the weekend at his friend Dennis' place. Dennis lives with his dad, too, a famous painter suffering from a prostate disorder. And Dennis can always get drugs. The two boys cook up a mission to get the girl, get the drugs and turn a profit on the leftovers so that Warren, who starts to think better of his theft, can return the cash by Monday without his dad noticing.

The cast does a terrific job nailing the rhythm of Lonergan's smart-aleck verbal sparring. Joe Carlson, as Dennis, delivers obscenity-laced tirades that rank up there with Mark Wahlberg's Oscar-nominated rants in "The Departed," while Jacob Pennington gives Warren an ease with complicated emotional pivots. He artfully dodges becoming overly defensive in the face of Dennis' screeds and lets him careen into overreaction, delicately changing the balance of power in the scene.

That the actors are so close in age to the characters they play helps convey that post-adolescent confusion. High-school senior Amy Sproul portrays Jessica, the object of Warren's affections, as a girl whose poise wobbles on an undercurrent of bewilderment — things can still get so complicated for a girl who thinks she already has all the answers.

This is fine as far as it goes, but you get the feeling Lonergan wasn't just shooting for comedy. He was writing social commentary too, and that's the problem. The play is set in 1982 and isn't just a meditation on what it means to have adolescence prolonged into your 20s, but also what it means to be a 20-something in the '80s.

At one point, Jessica tells Warren a story about finding a letter she wrote years before. She doesn't recall writing the letter or to whom it was addressed and concludes that who you are now has no bearing on who you will become. Warren disagrees, and this is pretty much the philosophical crux of the play.

The phenomenon Jessica describes is far from the YouTube/MySpace-driven archive fever characteristic of the way youth regard themselves. The question for today's clever, likable brats is not whether you can escape your history, but how best to curate it, politically and personally. So rather than acting as a thought-provoking plot device, the philosophy highlights how dated the play is.

In the same conversation, Jessica moans over how disillusioning it is to see all those idealistic hippies transform into lawyers and vote Ronald Reagan into office. In today's political climate dominated by spin and scandal, it can make one nostalgic for a resolvable crisis like Iran-Contra. It's like having the cast of "The Breakfast Club" give a civics lesson.

It all adds up to a production that is polished and funny, but not yet old enough to be illuminating. As Warren might say to Dennis: I don't want to get in a fight about this, but why are we even having this conversation? S

The Firehouse Theatre Project presents "This Is Our Youth" Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 31. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 355-2001 or visit www.firehousetheatre.org. S

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