The Rennings Children, pr. 1982
This Is Our Youth, pr. 1996
Lobby Hero, pr. 2000
The Waverly Gallery, pr., pb. 2000
Analyze This, 1999
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, 2000
You Can Count on Me, 2001
Kenneth Lonergan became a popular playwright in New York and London during the late 1990’s. At the same time he achieved acclaim as a screenwriter, particularly for the independent feature film You Can Count on Me, which he also directed. The impact of his work derives in part from his emphasis on people who yearn for personal connection but either lack goals or have self-destructive, sometimes criminal ambitions. Whether his characters grope for language in the face of Alzheimer’s disease or founder with the inarticulateness of youth, Lonergan dramatizes their struggle for self-expression, even when they may not know what they want to say.
Born and raised on the upper West Side of Manhattan, Lonergan acknowledges himself as a child of privilege. His father was a doctor and his mother a psychiatrist; later his mother remarried a fellow psychiatrist, and Lonergan grew up in a blended family with numerous siblings. The family atmosphere was analytical and rational, with no formal religious upbringing; Lonergan described himself in 2002 as an atheist. He attended private schools that encouraged his writing talent; work done in high school led to the selection of The Rennings Children for the Young Playwrights Festival in 1982.
Immediately after high school Lonergan made a brief beginning at college, then returned to his family’s home in New York City. Work as a doorman proved so boring that Lonergan was motivated to make a serious commitment to college, majoring in dramatic writing at New York University. Following graduation he worked as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency and also did corporate scriptwriting while developing his writing career. Financial support from his parents subsidized his apprenticeship in the Off-Broadway troupe Naked Angels. Through this association Lonergan was able to have his work read and critiqued by fellow actors, but it was nearly a decade before he obtained a professional production of a full-length play, This Is Our Youth. A one-act version, titled Betrayal by Everyone, was staged in a festival of one-acts at the Met theater in 1993, with Mark Ruffalo in the role of Warren, which he went on to reprise in later New York productions of This Is Our Youth. The three characters in this play, according to Lonergan, reflect the lifestyle of him and his friends during their late teens and early twenties: dependent on their parents for money, habitually using drugs, especially marijuana, and prone to taking life-threatening risks.
In Lonergan’s case, the postcollege years were not entirely misspent: In addition to This Is Our Youth, he was writing drafts of the play that would become his second theatrical success, The Waverly Gallery, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Based on his experiences with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, The Waverly Gallery at first seems to have little in common with This Is Our Youth; however, both plays are shaped by a concern to render the speech of the inarticulate, and both draw specifically from the circumstances of Lonergan’s life.
During the 1990’s, Lonergan also began to develop a career as a screenwriter. His initial script, about a gangster who undergoes psychoanalysis, combined a staple theme of Hollywood (the Mafia) with the professional world Lonergan had observed growing up with his psychiatrist mother and stepfather. The film, Analyze This, differed greatly from Lonergan’s original script (there were eventually fourteen additional writers involved) but its box-office success brought Lonergan other offers and put him into position to make the independent film You Can Count on Me. Lonergan directed this project, so his control over the finished film was at the opposite end of the spectrum from his experience with Analyze This. Unlike writers of an earlier era who went to Hollywood and were disillusioned by the profit-oriented system, Lonergan approached Hollywood very pragmatically, as a way to fund his work for the less lucrative stage. His practical approach to working in Hollywood may explain his involvement with the screenplay for the animated feature The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
You Can Count on Me brought unprecedented attention to Lonergan’s work. Its release and acclaim coincided with the successful production of This Is Our Youth, making him seem very much the man-of-the-moment and a magnet for a great deal of media attention. The themes of the film are consistent with Lonergan’s stage work. At the center of the story is the relationship between Terry and Sammy, a brother and sister who lost their parents at an early age and have only each other to count on, at least in terms of family. Both have a tendency to fall into problematic sexual relationships (resulting in Sammy’s single parent status), and Terry has served time in jail for battery. Sammy is just barely managing to provide a stable existence for her son, but Terry is still wildly adrift, even at the end of the film. The charm of the film owes much to superb performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, the same actor who played Warren in the various early incarnations of This Is Our Youth.
By 2002, productions of Lonergan’s work were playing in major London theaters, sometimes with celebrity casts. British audiences enjoyed what they perceived as home truths about the underbelly of American culture. American film star Matt Damon took the stage in London as part of a lauded production of This Is Our Youth. Enthusiasm for that play led to an overlapping staging of Lobby Hero, following directly its production in New York, where reviews were positive despite concerns that the plot was heavily structured in order to make didactic revelations to the audience.