Arts New York Diary: It's all in the school

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The Independent Culture
IN MANHATTAN, private schools are just like Masonic lodges. Their student initiates understand the subtle groupings and sub-groupings of their young life world. They have an unspoken intelligence about New York's social elite.

Look closely, though, and the lodges' traces are everywhere: famous graduates of the wealthiest schools include Gwyneth Paltrow, the Beastie Boys, Fiona Apple and Spike Lee.

The code is broken in This Is Our Youth, a smart, Mike Leigh-lite play about stoned teens on the Upper West Side, set in 1982. "My parents pay for this apartment," says the scene's dealer, declaring his independence. "They don't throw me out of it!" Pretty screw-ups diss each other, confess and smoke up on their parents' dime. The theatre, packed with milky-skinned, Gap-clad Upper West Side couples in their mid-30s, chortle as teens spill cocaine on the floor and exchange apercus. "We went to schools that thought learning to spell would cripple us."

The theatre audience's magazines also document these schools. New York magazine reports tales of "shook" (slutty) teenagers of uptown provenance, and the twentysomething PR divas who made their earliest contacts in exclusive grade schools. The New York Observer, the city's weekly newspaper most likely to appeal to parents who send their kids to private schools, even features a column on such institutions and their culture.

Observer readers and This Is Our Youth audiences are titillated by reflections of their ordinarily unspoken privilege. Happily for them, there may be more plays mirroring the private-school milieu, given the upsurge of the young theatre movement since the musical Rent. Amy Tepper, an Upper East Sider and 26-year-old Dalton School grad, produced John Leguziamo's Freak and the theatrical version of Trainspotting. Perhaps there are young theatre producers gearing up with plays about Dalton.

While upper-middle-class adult New Yorkers may be a bit voyeuristic about their kids' lives, the kids themselves are voyeuristic about the lives of those poorer and cooler than they are. It is pitch-perfect that This is Our Youth's Dennis boasts of leaving the Upper West Side to play basketball in Harlem. He is like the many private-school kids who spend their free time in impoverished Flatbush doing drugs and drinking malt liquor.

Dennis's girlfriend has given him her own "pseudo-lesbian sculpture of two girls kissing", exemplifying another private-schooler ambition - to be, or seem to be. sex-positive and drug-omniscient. The look in the Eighties was tarty sophistication; the play's one girl wears high-heeled boots, a beaded sweater and a stretchy miniskirt. Now, her skinny private-school equivalent is wearing Jordache designer jeans that were in fact produced in 1982, a Seventies punk T-shirt, butterfly barrettes and a Pixie Yates sweater.

But then again, the viewers may not equate the abusive, moneyed families of the play with the ways of their own cushion-strewn nests. Perhaps the play's unhappy progeny merely conjure those "poor dope fiends" whom their kids mention obliquely over brunches at the Barney Greengrass deli.