If you ever wondered how two teenaged boys would fare if they didn’t go to school, didn’t eat much, hardly ever went outside, and spent their days watching porn and playing video games, Anna Jordan’s play Yen offers a case study. While the boys have some fun when left to their own devices, it’s hardly surprising when bad things happen. Luckily, Jordan (an Englishwoman who won the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting for Yen) provides a few jolts and surprises in the course of her tough, unsparing play. It isn’t always pleasant to watch, and it isn’t for everyone, but Yen definitely packs a punch.
Previously staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Yen has been given a first-rate production by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. Director Trip Cullman has worked with young actors in plays like Punk Rock and Significant Other. Here he works his magic with Lucas Hedges and Justice Smith. Deservedly Oscar-nominated for his acting in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges is making his stage debut and rises to the occasion with a thoughtful, slow-burning performance.
Hedges plays Hench (real name Paul), an aimless 16-year-old who shares a London flat with his 14-year-old brother Bobbie (Smith). School dropouts, they share a sofa bed in their dreary living room. Their dog Taliban, locked in the bathroom, barks occasionally when the boys yell or wrestle. When the play opens, they’re watching and discussing porn. Later they spend a lot of time playing violent video games.
Their mother Maggie (Ari Graynor), who spends most of her time at her boyfriend’s place, provides minimal food and clothing for her sons. When she does turn up, she’s so drunk that the boys have to drag her in off the street and sit on her to stop her convulsing. Maggie is not a cute alcoholic. In fact, she seems to be angling for worst mother of the year, or maybe the century. Yen brings to mind British working-class dramas of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and Maggie is an even more delinquent and uncaring mother than the one in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. In the first act, Maggie is downright irredeemable. When she finally tries to clean up her act, Graynor makes her almost likable.
The character who really shakes things up is an outsider: 16-year-old neighbor Jen (Stefania LaVie Owen). The boys thought she was watching their apartment because she had a crush on Hench. It turns out she was worried about their dog, since she hears him barking but never sees him being walked. While Jen seems well-adjusted, she reveals some grim details from her past. She and her mum moved from Wales after her dad died. Hench and Bobbie had different fathers who are also dead. Maggie says Hench’s father drowned after he saved a child who fell through ice. Too bad it’s a fairy tale: his death actually came from a needle.
Jordan doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Though one wonders why a social worker hasn’t dragged the boys to school, their life in the squalid apartment feels disturbingly real. Jordan’s dialogue rings true. Whenever Hench gets annoyed, Bobbie’s favorite response is “Don’t have a period.” The American actors’ London accents sounded good to me, though a Brit might spot occasional lapses.
Yen includes violent events, on stage and off, which is one reason not everyone will enjoy it. Bobbie’s screaming fit isn’t fun to watch. He is so hyper you want to hand him some Ritalin. Jumping around and grunting like an ape, he’s a trapped wild child. The ape noises get tired after a while, and Justice Smith’s relentless energy sometimes upstages the quieter, more introspective work by Hedges (whose character is calmer, but also troubled). Though Hedges is 20, he’s slight enough to be convincing as an undernourished 16-year-old.
Yen is a slice of sordid London life—Bleak House, if you will. Cullman’s production reinforces the play’s unvarnished, raw style with blaring music and grainy, jittery black-and-white projections between scenes. A playwright to watch, Jordan clearly doesn’t want audiences to feel comfortable. Yet she does offer glimmers of hope amid the brutal reality. As Jen explains, “yen” means a longing for something better.