It is not entirely surprising that Hedges has chosen this for his first stage appearance as he plays a similar taciturn 16-year-old in his role as Patrick, although in the film his moodiness was caused by bereavement while here he is socially awkward from years away from other teenagers his age. Hench (Hedges) and his hyper-active 14-year-old half-brother Bobbie (Smith) live alone in a flat in the London suburb of Feltham as their alcoholic and diabetic mother Maggie (Graynor) has gone to live with her boyfriend Alan and makes rare appearances. Even their grandmother who has run off with her illegal boyfriend has abandoned them.
Locked up in another room is their dog Taliban (because he is vicious and brown). As their money has run out, they have nothing to eat or food with which to feed the dog. The boys have one shirt between them as their granny departed just after they gave her all their laundry to wash. Bobbie steals milk and beer from the neighbors’ front doorsteps but runs the risk of getting caught. Hench and Bobbie spend their days streaming porn video and playing violent video games.
And then their 16-year-old neighbor from across the street pushes her way in so that she can see the dog. Jennifer (Owen), as it turns out she is called, may just be the first visitor of their own age they have ever had. Bobbie goes on bouncing off the walls, but the reserved Hench is intrigued by her. As she continues to return, a tentative relationship begins which will have consequences, firstly their mother when she meets her is visibly jealous. Eventually, the encounter will have a shocking denouement. The title is a play on words as the nickname that Jennifer’s father had for her was Yen, and the word’s literal meaning of longing or yearning describes all of the characters. The themes are among those Jordan has used before in her major London plays, Freak (2013) and Chicken Shop (2014): disaffected teenagers and bad parenting.
There are many questions that the author leaves unanswered. Although the boys have not attended school in years and Bobbie has been diagnosed as ADHD and should be in the British equivalent of special education, no social worker seems to have visited to check up. Who is paying the rent or the electricity? Is the mother on welfare and are these items paid automatically? There is no explanation of how the boys are eating and how Taliban stays alive if they have not been feeding it for days or even weeks. While the neighbors are aware of Bobbie’s stealing, he seems to be getting away with it. The dog’s continual barking from his locked room can be heard on the street but no complaints have been filed. Is all this a metaphor or a slice of life drama?
Nevertheless, the performances are commanding. While neither Hedges nor Smith really look like teens anymore, they are extremely convincing in their difficult roles. Hedges makes the emotionally traumatized, nearly silent Hench heroic in his obvious search for something better once he meets Jennifer. As the younger brother who almost never stops moving, Justice makes him a hyper-kinetic yo-yo, one who is so hyped up it is exhausting to watch him. Owens gives a lovely depiction of the lonely 16-year-old who has moved to London from Wales when her father died. She brings a beauty to a girl who has the ability to heal the wounded boys. Graynor, who has played mostly comedy in her four Broadway appearances, is a revelation as the manipulative, addicted mother who operates on her desires, at the expense of everyone around her.
Although the setting is described as dirty and messy, set designer Mark Wendland has gone in the opposite direction making it minimalist, a metaphor for the emptiness of their lives, which works just as well. You can almost smell the unwashed clothes from costume designer Paloma Young, so accurate are they for this collection of people. Ben Stanton’s subtle lighting takes you by surprise in scenes where night falls in small gradations. The play opens with sped-up footage of streaming video by Lucy Mackinnon which shows the neighborhood which to some extent sets the mood for the drama to come. Special praise goes to J. David Brimmer’s fight choreography and Stephen Gabis’ dialect coach.
Yen, Anna Jordan’s American debut, is both troubling and engrossing. Under the direction of Trip Cullman, the roles give the fine cast an acting field day. However, the play has glaring holes that, though their explanations may be obvious to British audiences, leave its credibility in doubt for Americans. Lucas Hedges makes a fine stage debut. It will be interesting to see what roles he chooses once he goes beyond his recent traumatized teens.
Yen (extended through March 4, 2017)
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission