Kenneth Lonergan’s work can be categorized as highly realistic, devoted to representing the language as well as the experience of characters thrust to the margins of society by age or social status. His work emphasizes character and situation over plot. In its realism, his style resembles that of his contemporary Rebecca Gilman, but his work is less driven by social issues. His focus is on intimate relationships, often between family members. His working process begins with a character, and he attempts to do justice to the inner life of those who may be perceived as inarticulate, whether they are teenagers, the elderly, or the uneducated. He finds myriad ways to dramatize the ambivalence and imprecision of many human situations and relationships. The success of his screenplay for You Can Count on Me brought Lonergan much publicity and a wider audience than most emerging playwrights ever expect to have. The production of Lobby Hero, shortly after the blast of publicity occasioned by the Academy Award nomination for You Can Count on Me, was covered in the New York newspapers as a major theatrical event, although the reviews were mixed. Some critics felt that the new play lacked the naturalness of Lonergan’s earlier works and that its insights are handed directly to the audience rather than engaging the audience’s discernment. However, most audiences warmed to the ethical complexity in the quartet of characters who sometimes behave badly as they try to do the right thing.
The characters in Lonergan’s plays often compare themselves to their own parents; this is true not only when characters are still close to childhood, as in This Is Our Youth, but also in the plays in which the protagonists are fully adult. Even William, the older security guard in Lobby Hero, reflects on the personality of his father. Elaine, the middle-aged psychiatrist in The Waverly Gallery finds her life still shaped by the temperament of her now-senile mother. This profusion of parents enhances the sense that Lonergan’s characters do not believe themselves to be completely grown up; in particular, they may fail to see that the responsibility for their actions belongs only to themselves. The world of Lonergan’s characters is a poignant one. Even the more corrupt of his characters appear lost rather than malicious, and good intentions certainly do not guarantee good outcomes.
Lonergan’s working process is characterized by an obsessiveness about rendering the language of his characters with exactness, and his dialogue undergoes revision right into the rehearsal process. His goal is to capture how each character speaks, while also differentiating the characters from one another. James Joyce is a model for him in the creation of distinctive voices, and the title of an early unpublished play “Here Comes Everybody,” alludes to Joyce’s linguistically playful novel Finnegans Wake (1939).
This Is Our Youth
Set on the upper West Side of Manhattan in 1982, this play concentrates entirely on several affluent college-aged characters, young people not only supported by their parents but also exploiting them: One of the young men, Warren, has just stolen fifteen thousand dollars from his father, a businessperson with Mafia ties. His self-aggrandizing friend Dennis proposes that they use the money to set up a drug deal. Dennis’s father is a famous artist who has installed his son in his own apartment so that he will not have to live with him. Dennis has chosen not to attend college but believes he could be a fantastic success at whatever he chooses, for example, directing films. The young men are alternately profane and hysterical; almost everything about their language and personalities would offend the middle-class theatergoers most likely to see the Off-Broadway production of this play.
However, Lonergan’s play would not be very interesting if it merely set up these unlikable characters and exposed their all-too-obvious flaws. Its strength derives from the empathy Lonergan ultimately exacts for these characters, who are harshly critical of their fathers yet poised to have lives of lesser achievement and equal pain. Both of the young men imitate their fathers in their exploitative yet dependent relationship to women. Warren’s sister was murdered some years before the play begins, and her death becomes a symbol of life’s chaos and gives the lie to youth’s illusion of invulnerability. The true vulnerability of youth is underlined when a drug-dealing friend dies of an overdose, launching Dennis into a tormented monologue that reveals the brittle shell of his self-esteem and his desperate...
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