Theater Review: In Yen, London Misery Makes Great Company

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Yen
Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith in Yen. Photo: Joan Marcus

Who’s to blame for Hench and Bobbie? The two boys, 16 and 14, live alone in a rundown “social housing” block in a London suburb, with one shirt between them and only what food they can nick. Neither goes to school; rather, they spend most of their time on a foldout sofa bed in the living room, playing Call of Duty or watching porn dispassionately. (The décor may be bare-bones, but the electronics are fully loaded.) Bobbie has an untreated, violent rash on his back; both have untreated violent rage. Hench’s is the stiff, dead-eyed kind but Bobbie’s is more animalistic: He leaps and hoots when excited and barks when upset. In this he is much like their dog, Taliban, whom they seem to love but fail to walk or feed or play with. Which is exactly how their mother — mostly absent, and with problems of her own — treats them.

In Yen, a terrific, breakneck new play by Anna Jordan that opened tonight at MCC Theater, the identification of the boys with the victimized dog on the one hand, and with their victimizing mother on the other, is perhaps a bit overdrawn. But it’s just the beginning of a wild ride. When Maggie, the mother, is driving, that ride is terrifying: She arrives onstage in the midst of a full-bore insulin meltdown. She’s also an alcoholic, probably a drug addict, and definitely a petty thief and grade-A narcissist who gets by on her looks and the men she can snare to take care of her. Any maternal feelings she may have for Hench and Bobbie — mostly for Bobbie, who still adores her — are scratchy and intermittent, frequently interrupted by, at minimum, verbal abuse. Yet while giving the monster her full due, Ari Graynor, who plays her, keeps some humanity in reserve; the play hints at, and Graynor conveys with great pathos, the slight eke of love a ruined soul may yet be capable of. With great tenderness, she tells Bobbie the bedtime story he most treasures: how his father died saving a stranger’s child. (It’s a lie.) 

Hench’s long-gone father deserves no such hagiography, as Maggie keeps reminding him; it’s one of the ways she pits the boys against each other and undermines the interdependence she has forced on them through abandonment. Still, in the remarkable performances of Lucas Hedges as Hench and Justice Smith as Bobbie, you can faintly trace the fraternal connection, even though the two — one white, one biracial — behave and look nothing alike. (The script doesn’t specify their races.) Hedges, recently Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Manchester By the Sea, gets the locked-down qualities of the character uncannily right; it’s not that he doesn’t have emotions, but that they emerge intermittently, in bright, unpredictable flashes. Meanwhile, Smith, a star of Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, dives fearlessly into Bobbie’s bizarre expressiveness, with its doglike simplicity and danger.

Were Yen content to explore this one situation, it might be a successful-enough lost-boy social drama, like Lyle Kessler’s Orphans, meant to expose the cycle of victimization of which Hench and Bobbie are but one revolution. And Yen does expose that, to some extent. But it is much more ambitious and open-ended than that, reaching toward the bigger and bleaker greatness of poetic dramas like Of Mice and Men. This part of the story opens up with the arrival of a Welsh girl named Jennifer who lives in a nearby flat and is worried about the dog. A kind of downmarket Wendy from Peter Pan, she appears somewhat magically to help all three misfits — Hench, Bobbie, and Taliban — recover from neglect. She’s a tough-angel character; in Stefania LaVie Owen’s resourceful performance, you understand that her eagerness to repair this little corner of the world arises from her own deep understanding of neglect. She feeds all three the first proper food they’ve had in ages, she diagnoses Bobbie’s psoriasis, and, in a scene of exquisite tenderness, treats Hench to the first responsibly loving touch he’s probably ever had. It must and does lead to disaster. 

Jordan wisely refuses to give us the do-over we (and the characters) desperately want in the second half; lives of poverty and abuse get few mulligans. Still, she struggles to land the plane satisfactorily, leading to questions you wouldn’t otherwise have time to ask. For me, one of those questions was: “Whom is the play blaming?” The default answer for all British plays of this ilk is “society”; where else does poverty come from? But Yen is unconvincing on that point. Trip Cullman’s otherwise crystalline production — it’s his best work in quite a while — seems to put its thumb on the scales with opening projections of the dreadful busyness of life in a dull suburb, with its McDonald’s and double-decker buses and numbing soullessness. But Hench and Bobbie live in a two-bedroom flat that’s paid for by their mother’s welfare benefits. The state hasn’t failed them; she has. That question of personal responsibility is one that Yen raises but can’t quite pin down, despite a touching if unlikely set of adjustments near the end. 

These are significant moral questions, but they are theatrical quibbles; the play and production never make a false step onstage. The roles are immensely actable — perhaps, in the case of Bobbie, too much so — and, in MCC’s production, immensely acted. You sense that this is the kind of work MCC has been trying to do forever but has achieved, in its 30 years, only intermittently: young, buzzy, smart, violent. The company (which will move into its own new building next year) wants to drag the stuffy old Theater screaming and kicking into the pop-culture renaissance now flowering on cable television, which is why their actors often come from that milieu. It’s not always a good fit. But when it is, as with Yen, it reminds you that plays need not be spinach or scolds. They can be destination viewing.

Yen is at MCC Theater through March 4.

Theater Review: Yen