Yen, a bleak British play that opens tonight Off-Broadway, stars Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated last week for his role in Manchester by the Sea, and Justice Smith, of the Netflix hip-hop drama The Get Down, as two teenage brothers living alone, with no school, no friends, little food and one t-shirt to share between them.
Hench, 16, and Bobbie, 14, spend their day bare-chested watching porno or playing violent video games, their flat-screen TV and a ratty sofa bed the few pieces of furniture in the living room. They stay out of their bedroom; that’s where they keep their dog, Taliban — so named, Bobbie explains, “‘Cos he’s vicious…And he’s brown.” They never walk Taliban, and they never clean up after him; that’s why they stay out of their bedroom. They also rarely feed him.
The audience never sees Taliban (we do hear him.) But in a way he is the pivotal character in Anna Jordan’s play – because he brings Jennifer into the boys’ lives.
Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), 16, has recently moved from Wales to their neighborhood, a rough area of Feltham (a suburb of London that Americans might know best as the hometown of such rock stars as Freddie Mercury and Jimmy Page.) Over the last couple of weeks, Jennifer has looked into their windows from the street and seen how they are neglecting Taliban. She barges in with an ultimatum: Give the dog to her to care for, or she’ll call the police on them.
Hench is willing to give Taliban to Jennifer. But Bobbie screams and begs and cries so violently that Jennifer is moved, and backs down. Over the next few weeks, she becomes a frequent visitor to their apartment, and their only friend – and more than a friend with Hench.
Yen is the nickname that her father gave Jennifer; his death forced her and her mother into straitened circumstances, which explains their move. Yen, of course, also means yearning. Playwright Jordan leaves little doubt that her play is meant to explore the damage caused by a lack of love.
Like Taliban, Hench and Bobbie are the victims of neglect. Maggie (Ari Graynor), conceived the boys with two different fathers (both now dead, apparently of overdoses.) Maggie herself is a drunk, who left the boys on their own to live with another man who is apparently abusive. Maggie occasionally returns, arriving on their doorstep in a diabetic coma, and, then, once they’ve revived her, trying to steal their remaining contents of the apartment in order to hock them. The boys were under the care of their grandmother for a while, but she too left, for a younger man.
If the dysfunction is extreme, there are hints of even greater, unspoken abuse: Hench has regular nightmares in which he shouts out in his sleep “Stop it. Don’t. Stop. NO,” and wets the bed he shares with Bobbie.
What leavens Yen’s sensationalism is the playwright’s precise observations of the moment-to-moment interactions. The dynamic between the two brothers, which ranges from teasing to protective, feels realistic, as does their individual reactions to, and warming to, the intruder Jennifer. The mother’s later scenes with each boy shows a bit of compassion for her that was absent earlier. But what makes these moments work above all are the performances by the four cast members.
Particularly absorbing is the interaction between Justice Smith and Lucas Hedges, with their contrasting characterizations. Justice Smith’s Bobbie literally bounces around the flat like a kangaroo, occasionally barking like his dog. This might well be a clinical condition, like ADHD, but he is also gleeful, cuddly, and adorably childish, even while he protests to his mother that he has become a man.
Lucas Hedges has the harder task of portraying a sullen, taciturn adolescent, but manages to communicate the roiling pain beneath the numbed-out surface, a pain that becomes more obvious when Jennifer reaches out to him.
Both of these performances are persuasive, terribly sad and – somebody has to admit this – also sexy.
For all the compassion that Jordan threads through the brutality, Yen takes a turn towards violence that, in retrospect, feels inevitable – less for sound psychological or sociological reasons than because that’s the standard ending for these kinds of dramas about dysfunctional families from the other half.
Director Trip Cullman can take credit for a production that is always watchable, but he also must take the hit for saddling his extraordinary (American) cast with thick British working class accents, which some (American) audience members will find at times nearly impenetrable.
Yen is on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York, New York, 10014) through February 19, 2017.
Tickets and details
Yen by Anna Jordan . Directed by Trip Cullman . Featuring Lucas Hedges as Hench, Justice Smith as Bobbie, Ari Graynor, Stefania LaVie Owen as Jenny. Set design by Mark Wendland . costume design by Paloma Young . lighting design by Ben Stanton . sound design by Fitz Patton . Produced by MCC Theater . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.