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theatre review

Kieran Culkin, left, plays Dennis, best friend to Michael Cera’s Warren in This Is Our Youth.Brigitte Lacombe

This Is Our Youth

  • Three stars
  • Written by Kenneth Lonergan
  • Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
  • Starring Michael Cera
  • At the Cort Theatre in New York

The Real Thing

  • Three stars
  • Written by Tom Stoppard
  • Directed by Sam Gold
  • Starring Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon
  • At the American Airlines Theatre in New York

Are there too many film and television stars on Broadway? It's certainly hard to find a non-musical play on the Great White Way without a Hollywood name in the cast: James Earl Jones in You Can't Take It With You; Glenn Close in A Delicate Balance; Carol Burnett in Love Letter. …

While the trend is perhaps unfair to thespians who have dedicated themselves primarily to the stage, it's clearly good for business – and not always bad for the art, either.

Take This Is Our Youth, a 1996 play about overprivileged drug dealers written by Kenneth Lonergan that benefits greatly from an overprivileged cast.

Canadian star Michael Cera (of Superbad and Arrested Development fame) heads up the cast as Warren – a hyperactive stoner, if that's not an oxymoron. He shows up at his drug-dealing frenemy Dennis Ziegler's apartment one weekend with a suitcase full of $15,000 taken from under his abusive father's bed. Together, the two devise a scheme to buy some blow, cut it and sell it, then return the money – minus the profit – to Warren's father before its absence is noted.

Kieran Culkin (Cera's co-star in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) plays Dennis with grinning cruelty, while Rookie Magazine editor and fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, making her stage debut, is somewhat stilted as Warren's love interest, Jessica Goldman – a characteristic that feeds in nicely to the painfully self-conscious character.

Often what an audience gets in watching a celebrity on stage is a kind of inadvertent Brechtian effect: The actors never entirely slip away into the characters and you evaluate the performances as much as you follow the story. This slightly removed spectatorship actually gives a play like Lonergan's – rigid in its fourth-wall realism and almost anthropological in its dialogue – an extra layer of theatricality.

Cera astonishes as Warren – and not just because he often seemed a limited actor on screen. He commits physically to the part, acting with his whole body throughout, moving about jaggedly even when he's sitting, rocking from one chair leg to another. When he zones out, he puts his hands in his pockets so deep that his forearms disappear. His sympathetically pathetic performance should be a calling card to more diverse dramatic parts back in the film world.

Set in the early 1980s, This Is Our Youth is a strange little play – a heist drama without any really convincing tension, particularly with a slightly miscast Culkin as a very low-key Dennis. (He played Warren in another production and seems more suited for that part.) If this production by Anna D. Shapiro (the Tony-winning director who just took over the top job at Steppenwolf in Chicago) lacks urgency, however, that may be the point. Despite their claims of impending menace, it's clear the only thing really threatening these young Manhattanites is themselves; they may dabble in danger, but they are protected from – as Warren puts it with unknowing racism and classism – "the world next door" by their privilege.

And so, if the casting seems unfair – why should an online It girl sweep to Broadway debut over an unknown hard-working female actor? – well, This Is Our Youth is an illustration that life is as well. It reminds one of a song that came out while Lonergan was penning his play – Common People by Pulp: "When you're laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you call your dad he could stop it all."

While "star" is a term we associate more with film or TV these days, it's an expression that emerged in a theatrical context. The first recorded time a leading performer was called a "star" was in 1824, shortly after gas stage-lighting systems were introduced in theatres, allowing for artificial light to be focused on the stage – and thus actors to shine out in the darkness like celestial bodies. (Before that, in the age of candles and then oil, actors were more murkily lit and the dominant metaphor of an actor was "shadow." Think of Shakespeare: "If we shadows have offended …")

The revival of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing that opened Thursday night on Broadway certainly shines brightly with stars – it may, however, shine too blindingly in the case of one. This Russian doll of a 1982 play about love and marriage features Ewan McGregor as the contrarian playwright Henry, Maggie Gyllenhaal as his mistress-turned-wife Annie, and Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton as first wife, Charlotte, and first husband, Max, respectively.

With scenes from Henry's plays and teleplays nestled within it, Stoppard's multilayered work already formally investigates the differences between appearance and reality, acting and authenticity – and so the star casting does not enrich the show thematically.

Indeed, it goes against the grain of the play to cast McGregor – the most luminous star on stage; the most handsome and charismatic – as the one main character who is not an actor. He's strong as Henry, but makes it too easy to love him.

It's Gyllenhaal who fully impresses as Annie, an actor whose political support of an imprisoned soldier annoys her conservative partner. She keeps the star-burn on low and avoids actressy clichés of flightiness and fashionability. She digs deep.

At the performance I saw, Nixon and Hamilton weren't as perfectly calibrated (in accents, in particular) – but Stoppard's play about adultery and pop music is so artfully constructed that it's hard not to love it no matter what time around it is for you. Director Sam Gold's decision to have the cast sing pop ditties during scene changes on a never-changing set flattens the tone a bit, but McGregor's intellectual gymnastics and a truly heartfelt performance by Gyllenhaal make it memorable.

This Is Our Youth and The Real Thing are booking to Jan. 4.

Four-star, no-star productions on Broadway

The only non-musical drama on Broadway without a big-name star right now is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which comes to New York from the National Theatre in London.

Recent Juilliard grad Alex Sharp is getting rave reviews as Christopher, a high-functioning autistic teen who solves the murder of a local dog, in Simon Stephen's adaptation of Mark Haddon's best-selling 2003 novel. But I saw and was equally impressed by the alternate Christopher, Taylor Trensch, in a play that starts as a mystery but turns into a moving family drama about the challenges of raising a child with behavioural difficulties.

While its central performance is an endurance challenge (that Trensch pulls off with aplomb), Curious Incident is an ensemble production where the real stand-out is director Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse). She finds all sorts of clever, theatrical ways to take us into Christopher's unique, math-obsessed mind on a high-tech, Holodeck-styled set designed by Bunny Christie.

Stephen's meta-flourishes in the script don't quite work, but his adaptation is otherwise strong, avoiding sentimentality and Rain Man clichés. Stay after the curtain call for a bonus math question – a neat theatrical riff on the popularity of post-credit sequences. (At the Ethel Barrymore; open-ended.)

Another sensational star-free ensemble can be found in On the Town, a revival of Leonard Bernstein's 1944 musical about three sailors on shore leave, at the Lyric. Director John Rando's grandiose production feels like a throwback to the Broadway of yore in many others ways, too – from the national anthem played at the start to its middlebrow mix of ballet, opera and vaudeville yuks.

Playing the trio of sailors who sing New York, New York (It's a Helluva Town) are Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck and Canadian Clyde Alves (the maddest and most manic of the three), who all transferred with the production from Massachusetts's Barrington Stage Company. Their three female one-night stands all have particularly awe-inspiring special skills, though – scat singer Alysha Umphress, operatic comedian Elizabeth Stanley and ballerina Megan Fairchild. This joyful resurrection of mythic America successfully exorcises the Lyric – recently renamed from the Foxwoods – after its years of hosting Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.