February 4, 2017

The Acting Is Why You'll Need to See "Yen"

The Brits have such a fondness for plays about unhappy people who live in squalid settings and do unpleasant—and often violent—things to one another that they've even given the genre a name: "in-your-face theatre." 

And it was truly shocking in 1965 when a trio of young people stoned a baby to death in Edward Bond's forerunning Saved. It was equally disquieting in the '90s when young playwrights channeled their despair with Margaret Thatcher's conservative policies into plays like Sarah Kane's Blasted and Mark Ravehill's Shopping and Fucking, both of which had scenes in which one young man rapes and otherwise humiliates another. 

But nowadays, a play filled with similar aggressions can feel a little been-there-done-that. At least that's the way I felt watching Yen, the award-winning drama by the young British playwright Anna Jordan that MCC Theater opened Monday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Yen is set in a grungy housing project apartment (kudos for the squalor to set designer Mark Wendland) where half brothers, Hench, 16, and Bobbie, 14, fend for themselves while their diabetic and drug-addicted mother is shacked up elsewhere with her latest boyfriend. 

The boys, neither of whom goes to school, spend their days playing video games, watching porn, shoplifting things to eat and failing to walk their dog Taliban. They share a foldout bed in the living room because their bedroom is filled with his waste.

The unseen dog's whelps draw the concern of Jennifer, a young newcomer from Wales who has recently moved into the project with her widowed mom. In no time, Jenny's not only bringing the dog food and taking him out for walks but looking after the boys as well. Eventually, however, the damage that neglect—and perhaps abuse—has done to the brothers overwhelms them all.

It's clear that Jordan is a talented writer but her play seems a bit too grim, not to mention predictable. Poor people do have hard lives. But hardness isn't all they have. Yet that's what we tend to get in plays about them, verging on a kind of poverty porn that allows theatergoers to feel virtuous just for watching it.  

Although in this case, I have to admit the watching is worthwhile because the acting, guided by Trip Cullman's finely calibrated direction, is uniformly superb. 

I'd expected as much from Ari Graynor, whose work I've enjoyed in the past and who is again terrific as the boys' mom. Graynor captures the jittery desperation of a woman who, despite her demons, loves her children but because of those demons isn't capable of giving them what they need.

But what's even more impressive is the fact that the actors playing the three young people, none of them is older than 21, are all making their professional stage debuts. 

Justice Smith is heartbreakingly convincing as the infantile Bobbie who literally bounces off walls when he's excited, collapses into crying jags when he's disappointed and crawls needily into his mother's lap when she makes one of her rare visits to the apartment.

Stefania LaVie Owen rings just as true as Jennifer, giving a creditable Welsh twang to her lines (in fact, everyone's accent seems spot-on) and a flintiness to the character that suggests an inner toughness that makes Jennifer more than just the girl next door (click here to read an interview with the actress).

But all eyes were on Lucas Hedges the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the play. Hedges, who is still a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, has just been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "Manchester by the Sea" but he seems made for the stage (click here to read more about him).

Hedges' Hench is the most muted of this sad quartet and it would be easy to play him with standard-issue sullenness. But Hedges manages to convey the quiet yearning that gives this play its title. He and his cast mates make Yen, running only through March 4, worth seeing.

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