by Samuel L. Leiter
Justice Smith, the wiry 21-year-old actor playing the feral, 14-year-old Bobbie in Yen, Anna Jordan’s potent, if uneven, prize-winning British drama at the Lucille Lortel, is giving what is surely the most physically explosive performance on any New York stage. Enhanced by the emotionally riveting work of Justice Smith and his three fellow actors, this MCC production of Yen, despite the play’s flaws, is one of the most gripping of the Off-Broadway season.
Bobbie and his 16-year-old half-brother, Hench (Lucas Hedges, Academy Award nominee for Manchester by the Sea), both born out-of-wedlock to the same struggling mother, are living in a squalid, stinking flat (nicely evoked in Mark Wendland’s fetid design) equipped with nothing but a sofa bed, a TV, and various electronic gadgets.
Bobbie is unbridled energy, perhaps a sufferer from ADHD, whose manic physicality, as he bounds about and makes animalistic sounds and movements, makes him seem like a cross between a chimpanzee and a German shepherd. The inarticulate, bed-wetting Hench can also be very physical—as in the roughhousing (well-staged by J. David Brimmer)—between him and Bobbie. He’s the more grounded and mature sibling tenuously holding things together despite his and Bobbie’s basic lack of survival strategies and social skills.
Their verbally abusive mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), is a loose-living, boozy slattern who lives in equally dire circumstances with her current boyfriend and is unable to care for her sons; when we first see her, she’s in the throes of a diabetic attack. The boys, foul-mouthed and unkempt (with help from costumer Paloma Young), with only one shirt between them, spend their time watching porn or playing video games, while their dog, Taliban, whose barking is often heard, is kept in another room, practically starving and barely cared for or cleaned up after.
A 16-year-old neighbor from Wales named Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), preternaturally wise and kind (perhaps artificially so, considering the circumstances), befriends the boys when she becomes aware of their dog’s plight; before long, she falls in love with Hench. This leads to the near-tragic developments that bring the characters and play to an uneasy conclusion.
Yen, which premiered in Manchester, England, is played out in two acts over two overlong hours of seriocomic misery, with scene breaks marked by loud electronic music (great sound design by Fitz Patton) and flashing video effects (spot-on lighting by Ben Stanton and projections by Lucy Mackinnon). Bobbie, Hench, and Maggie speak in thick, working-class accents (Jennifer’s is Welsh) that can sometimes be hard to follow.
Jennifer reminds us that “Yen,” her nickname, means “longing: to long for something,” and it’s clear that that “something” is love. This is expressed in many ways, including Hench’s inability to accept love, simple and unadorned, when Jennifer offers it to him, so damaged has he been by its distortions (like the pornography he watches). The play suggests the yearning we all feel for love, be it fraternal, parental, or romantic, how painful it can be to be deprived of it, yet how hard it can be to accept it when it’s offered. Love, it seems, will break through all barriers, like a blade of grass pushing its way through concrete.
Jordan’s drama ekes out its themes in bits and pieces, focusing on mood, atmosphere, and character, so that when something traumatic happens it stands out that much more sharply. The events in Act Two, though, dramatic as they may be, take the play in a slightly different, more plot-oriented direction. And the characters we’ve met in the first act, especially Maggie and Bobbie, don’t always match up with how they’re seen in the second.
But thanks to Trip Cullman’s incisive direction and the charismatic performances of the dynamic Smith, the sensitive Hedges, the distraught Graynor, and the warm, glowing Owen, Yen can be recommended for those longing for a disturbing yet moving work of theatre.
Yen. Through March 4 at Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street, between Bleecker and Hudson). www.mcctheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus