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It’s easy to see why Anna Jordan’s Yen received plaudits at London’s Royal Court Theatre. An uncompromisingly bleak depiction of troubled, lower-class British youth, the play is the sort of harsh, realistic drama for which that theater is so renowned. Unfortunately, it seems to have lost much of its power in the transatlantic crossing. Despite fine work from an ensemble that includes Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) in his stage debut, the play doesn’t offer so much a slice of life as a barely digestible bite.
Set in a rundown flat containing barely any furniture, Yen concerns half-brothers Hench (Hedges) and Bobbie (Justice Smith of Netflix’s The Get Down) — 16 and 14 years old respectively, although Bobbie seems to have become a year younger since the British production — who spend their apparently school-free days aimlessly watching porn and playing video games.
They’re under no parental supervision, since their diabetic, alcoholic mother Maggie (Ari Graynor) lives with her latest boyfriend and stops by only occasionally. Their only companion is their dog, frequently heard loudly barking from another room, where he remains confined because of his tendency to bite. The dog’s name, Taliban, derives from his being “brown and vicious.”
The bleakness of the boys’ lives is temporary alleviated by the arrival of their 16-year-old, animal-lover neighbor Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), who has taken an interest in Taliban’s welfare. The young Welsh woman soon takes an interest in Hench as well, with Bobbie helpfully trying to nudge their relationship along by suggesting that she try on a slinky black dress.
“Am I a f—ing sick wingman or what?” Bobbie excitedly asks his brother.
Jennifer manages to coax Hench out of his protective shell, even tenderly teaching the virginal young man how she likes to be touched. But when he accidentally wets the bed while they’re sleeping together, his embarrassment sets off a chain of violent (offstage) events that have lasting repercussions.
The play’s descent into turgid, contrived melodrama at least rescues it from the tediousness that had preceded it. Virtually nothing of interest happens in the overlong first act, although the playwright’s desire to shock becomes readily apparent. Director Trip Cullman tries to energize the slow-paced proceedings with jarring sound effects and video projections, as well as shining bright lights directly into the audience’s eyes. But these embellishments mainly smack of theatrical desperation, since the playwright never makes clear what she’s actually trying to say.
The younger performers are excellent: Hedges’ quietly anguished Hench and Smith’s wired, emotionally volatile Bobbie provide a vivid contrast, while Owen (who plays Hugh Laurie’s daughter on the Hulu series Chance) is touching as the young woman whose good intentions go terribly awry. Graynor is not quite as effective — while she delivers a committed performance, she also comes across as too healthily pretty for her character’s dissipation to be entirely credible.
In a way, it’s emblematic of Yen on the whole. Striving for brutal realism, it instead comes across as faux misery.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Justice Smith, Ari Graynor, Stefania LaVie Owen
Playwright: Anna Jordan
Director: Trip Cullman
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music & sound design: Fitz Patton
Projection designer: Lucy Mackinnon
Presented by MCC Theater
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