Review by Holli Harms
February 8, 2017
YEN a new play by British playwright Anna Jordan opens on two teenage half brothers in a town outside of London who are left to fend for themselves by their addict, diabetic, deadbeat mother (played with brittle-bone desperation by Ari Graynor). They live in a two room flat that she pays for with her benefit checks. They live in only one room of the flat with a TV and couch and one shirt between the two of them. The boys, 16 year old Hench played by Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) and 14-year-old Bobbie, the outstanding Justice Smith (Netflix's “The Get Down”) spend their days watching endless porn and playing video games. Mom does drop by every now and then, strung out and needy; she is there to get some love and “cuddling” from her youngest, Bobby, and whatever money the boys may have. In the other room of the flat is their dog; the neglected German Shepherd named Taliban, whose barks are exclamation points to the boys yells and screams, and cries of anger and anguish.
The first act is a cacophony of screaming, yelling, barking, running, jumping, crawling, flashing, masturbating, and bashing up against anything and everything. It is an endless bombardment of sound and fury – showing us, telling us, who these boys are and what they are not, but it’s too much. The showing and telling go around and around and…
Things change when their neighbor, 16-year-old Jenny, nicknamed “Yen,” (the captivating Stefania LaVie Owen), enters their world. She is there to save Taliban. She can see the poor creature from the window, and as an animal lover she wants to rescue him. What she doesn’t know is that he is not the only “animal” in the flat that needs rescuing.
It is the arrival of Jenny that turns the play into something more than the yelling and gnashing of teeth. Here is where poetry begins and here is where we start to care, to listen – leaning forward, drinking in the words and emotions played so beautifully by this flawless cast.
Hench, played so exquisitely by Hedges, wants the love that Jenny is offering, but his demons get in the way, and trigger the horrific twists and turns that take the wind out of them all.
“Yen” we are told is not just the name of Japanese money, but also means “longing”. A longing all the characters have for some kind of love, for those lost to the hardships of their status. They are the ones left to live in poverty, in a place where they will destroy not only themselves, but others. Again and again.
In YEN it is the quiet, painful moments of longing where the writer, actors and director all shine. That light is the light we hold up in darker moments for direction and hope.
"Despite the resulting sensory overload, 'Yen' never quite packs the wallop it so obviously intends to. Its dialogue, while replete with a raw sexual vocabulary that its characters fail to grasp the implications of, falters when it skews sentimental."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Broken people falling through the cracks is familiar territory. But the play’s dark shadows and surprising flickers of tenderness get under your skin in director Trip Cullman's staging. Which isn't to say there aren't issues. Characters and plotting could use more heft, while the dialogue is too much."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Writing with vigor and sympathy, Jordan evokes the boys’ volatile combination of poverty, misogyny and piss-poor communication skills, and Trip Cullman—who directed the comparable Punk Rock for MCC in 2014—once again adeptly charts a modern teenage wasteland."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"This is not an easy play to watch or hear. The dialect is a challenge…and the violence quotient is enough to turn off the faint of heart. Hard to love certainly, but given such a gutsy production, it’s equally hard to turn away."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Despite excellent perfomances, this bleak British import is all surface, no depth."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"The barking dog locked in the next room isn’t the only animal neglected in Anna Jordan’s bleak, brutal yet surprisingly tender play “Yen,” making its American premiere in a powerfully acted and impressively staged MCC Theater production that stars newly minted Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges."
Frank Rizzo for Variety
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