To yen, or experience longing, first requires the acknowledgment that what you want is just out of reach. But in Anna Jordan’s Yen, such complex emotion is beyond the comprehension of the main characters — two impoverished, nearly feral teens without tools for human interaction. For sixteen-year-old Hench (Lucas Hedges) and his younger half brother, Bobbie (Justice Smith), feelings are things they barely recognize and thus can hardly control.
In a filthy apartment in a housing project in London, the boys waste away their days watching porn and playing violent video games. (Everything about Mark Wendland’s water-stained, wallpaper-peeling, grimy set makes you itch; the fetid odor of the place nearly wafts off the stage.) Hench is buttoned-up, Bobbie garrulous with behavioral difficulties: When he gets worked up he barks, bounces, or throws tantrums. They spew racist, homophobic, and misogynistic bile. Their addict mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), has decamped to shack up with her new boyfriend, and she only returns to try to manipulate the boys or steal from them.
That leaves Hench as Bobbie’s ineffectual caretaker. The brothers steal to survive and can barely take care of themselves, let alone their dog, who they’ve trollishly named Taliban. Without money to get their laundry back, they share one smelly shirt. And then a fresh breeze arrives in the form of sixteen-year-old Jenny (Stefania LaVie Owen), a Welsh girl with a sweet spot for animals who’s just moved in across the street and notices the starving dog in the window. She takes charge, feeding Taliban and, eventually, the boys.
The play’s heartbreaking success comes from watching Jenny crack the taciturn Hench open, exposing his vulnerabilities. But it is a dangerous business; no one has ever taught these boys how to cope with feeling their feelings. Shame and rage become toxic and tragic in their inexperienced hands.
Considering the complex layers of the script, director Trip Cullman makes the proceedings too slick at certain moments, with bombastic projections, but he nonetheless coaxes a grueling must-see performance from Hedges in the actor’s Off-Broadway debut. Because Hench struggles to articulate himself, Hedges’s performance manifests in incremental physical gestures: Initially undone by Jenny’s proximity, Hench cannot stand near her and instead hovers in corners, finding security in the presence of the walls. Jenny responds with smiles, a warm gaze, a gentle pat of comfort, all of which Hench learns to tolerate and then mirror. Smith’s hyperactive Bobbie also resists exaggeration, revealing a convincing, detached mental immaturity that can’t keep pace with the character’s growing body. Happily, Jenny is more than a transformational plot device, with her own woes and wants, but Owen at times struggles to make congruent the character’s simultaneous naïveté and self-possession.
Jordan’s play offers no solutions to the poverty and abuse these children endure; likewise, it does not assign blame for the violence that results from such trauma. Instead, it remains fixed on the human cost of loss and neglect — and offers the slimmest glimmer of hope in the bracing darkness of these subjects.
By Anna Jordan
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through February 19