REVIEW: Livestreamed play reading of ‘This is Our Youth’ is lackluster despite a promising cast and philanthropic purpose

(Graphic courtesy of Brando Crawford)

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, cultural events have found a way to continue despite their venues being closed. On Friday, producer and director Brando Crawford brought live theater online with a reading of “This is Our Youth.” 

Written by Kenneth Lonergan in 1996, the play is a glimpse into the lives of young adults in New York’s Upper West Side as they deal drugs, debate over stolen money and navigate romance. Actors Florence Pugh, Alex Wolff and Justice Smith came together via a livestreamed Zoom session Friday for a read-through of the two-hour-long play.

The read-through was produced by Acting for a Cause, an initiative started by Crawford in high school that was eventually disbanded due to creative differences between Crawford and his partners. After the outbreak, Crawford resurrected the initiative to fundraise for families and students in need. 

“Fifty percent of the profits are going to go directly to families with someone who has coronavirus directly impacting them … and 50% of the profits are going to go to students on the west side of Chicago with financial need,” Crawford said during the play’s intermission as he encouraged viewers to donate. 

Even with a star-studded cast and noble premise, the play inevitably lost the energy of live theater. The actors did not print out the script, instead relying on an online version that twice disappeared due to connectivity issues. These technical issues butchered the flow of the play with one pause occurring halting the intensity of a climactic fight scene. The fourth wall was also broken during the read-through as Wolff apologized to his scene partners and livestream viewers explaining that his script quit out. 

Pugh was expectedly brilliant in her portrayal of Jessica Goldman with a stellar American accent. But Smith was the standout of the show, as he brought a stark duality to his character Dennis Ziegler. During the first act, Smith excelled at playing the hostile yet aimless drug dealer primarily concerned with buying coke and selling his friend’s vintage toy collection. 

Smith’s talent also shined in the second act, as he performed a monologue in the wake of his friend’s death about mortality, his friend’s life and family, all while he contemplated calling his angry girlfriend in search of any source of comfort. Smith was emotionally engaged, and his words were spoken with intent, creating a truly memorable final performance.

Wolff’s performance of Warren Straub left something to be desired. Warren is a frantic, needy and initially unlikable character. As the play explores the death of his sister and abusive relationship with his father, audiences are supposed to feel bad for him and eventually justify his erratic behavior. However, due to a lack of prep time and character work, Wolff’s portrayal was shallow and uninspired. He lacked the vulnerability needed to provoke empathy from the audience, which is necessary for Warren’s character development. 

Overall, the read-through provided an entertaining afternoon for viewers who tuned in. The shortcomings of the production were ultimately understandable, as embarrassing technical issues are universal experiences. Acting for a Cause made an effort to keep the arts alive and share them for free, all while raising $1,550.