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Theatre in Review: Yen (MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel Theatre)

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Yen, director Trip Cullman and his gifted, intensely committed cast so persuasively stake out a landscape of poverty and neglect that one might not notice at first the contrivances and underlying sentimentality of Anna Jordan's play. To be sure, Jordan's initial premise -- and its view of a British underclass reduced to a near-feral state -- is as scalding as they come, but even when the script, fairly early on, begins to take less plausible turns, it's the work of the actors that keeps one's eyes riveted to the ongoing tragedy of characters caged by their lack of education, economic disadvantage, and dearth of spiritual resources -- and placed on a fast track to disaster.

This vision is apparent in one's first glimpse of Mark Wendland's set, the living room of a council flat -- its walls covered with stained, peeling wallpaper -- furnished with little more than a fold-out bed and flat-panel television, placed on the floor. (The first scene is played out against the soundtrack of a porn film, the incessant -- and seemingly endless -- cries of an actress clearly faking her pleasure providing a strange obbligato to the onstage action.) The room is occupied by Hench, 16, and Bobbie, 14; their mother, Maggie, has essentially abandoned them to live with her boyfriend, known to the boys as "minge face Alan." Giving us a preview of the state of play in this family, Maggie says they may visit "when Alan's calmed down a bit." Bobbie's response: "It was an accident." "You don't bite someone by accident," Maggie coolly replies.

The boys' grandmother was supposed to look after them, but she has disappeared, along with her boyfriend, "Slik Vik, the smooth-talking asylum seeker," who fears deportation. She had the boys' laundry when she fled, so now they have one shirt between them. Out of money and food (and, in Bobby's case, having given up on hygiene), they're living moment to moment, watching the film's mechanical depiction of coitus and discussing the details of anal sex, looking out the window at the "skank" on the street, and generally horsing around. If they have nothing else in the house, however, they have a bottle of Lucozade -- the UK equivalent of Gatorade -- on hand for Maggie's visits: An alcoholic, she is also prone to attacks of diabetic shock, requiring the boys to wrestle her to the floor in order to relieve her agony with a few sips of sweetened liquid. Ari Graynor, who plays Maggie, makes this event seem so harrowingly real that you may find yourself tensely clutching your armrest until her convulsions subside.

The moment described above points to what Cullman's production gets so right: What might have been a picture of unrelieved gloom, guaranteed to turn off the audience in five minutes or less, is given an implicit, second-by-second tension by the actors. Lucas Hedges' Hench appears withdrawn at first, but he is as tightly coiled as a viper waiting to strike; while Bobbie tends to fawn over Maggie -- "She's the best thing that ever happened to me," Bobbie says, thereby revealing the terrible deprivation that is his lot -- Hench keeps his distance, remaining watchful and ready to punch back. Their relationship -- and Maggie's approach to mothering -- can be summed up in the following exchange:

Maggie: Got anything to smoke then. Bit of weed?

Hench: No.

Maggie: God, what sort of teenager are you?

Hench: I haven't any money!

Hench is also less contained than he first appears, as he is afflicted with nightmares and bed-wetting. He and Bobbie, who is biracial, are half-brothers; when Maggie tells Bobbie an obviously fabricated story about the death of his father -- allegedly he drowned saving a young girl from icy waters -- there are dark hints about what happened to his parent that clearly trouble him more than he lets on.

Bobbie is obviously far more damaged, entirely oblivious to borders between himself and others, given to mimicking phrases heard on television, and prone to violent, impulsive acting out that would be worrisome in someone half his age. Watching the explosive -- yet thoroughly controlled -- performance of Justice Smith, many possible diagnoses come to mind: Is he autistic? A victim of fetal alcohol syndrome? Or is he simply a wild creature, raised without the faintest awareness of behavioral norms? His attachment to Maggie is more than a little disturbing: Once she has passed out, the boys get her into bed and Bobbie falls on top of her. Later, he sits on her lap, cuddling with her in a way guaranteed to set off alarm bells. "Mumma's little angel," Maggie calls him -- and yet, when thwarted, he stages a tantrum so unhinged, so physical, that it borders on an epileptic fit. Hedges, currently nominated for an Oscar, and Smith, who recently appeared in the video series The Get Down, are new to the stage; based on their work here, they have astonishing stage careers ahead, if they want them.

Where Yen gets into a little bit of trouble is with the appearance of Jennifer, the girl seen through the window; the boys have been keeping their dog, named Taliban, in their bedroom, which he has befouled and where he is slowly starving to death. Jennifer, observing this from the street, bursts in, ready to call the authorities if they don't turn the animal over to her. Instead, she stays, and gradually begins caring for them. Yen is transformed into a kind of Wendy-and-the-Lost-Boys scenario that never fully convinces, partly because Jennifer -- who has her own hard-luck story involving a dead father and exile from her home in Wales -- is, compared to everything else we have seen, a not fully credible figure of unalloyed selflessness. (This is nothing against Stefania LaVie Owen, another remarkable young talent. Jennifer gets the dog fed, finds treatment for the horrific psoriasis covering Bobbie's back, and puts both boys on a rather more stable basis. Maggie, who can't stand the idea of being replaced, intervenes --violently -- and eventually takes Bobbie away. Jennifer and Hench plan to run back to Wales together, but first, she decides to seduce him. The scene, in which she quietly, gradually gets him to open up, physically and emotionally, is one of the most delicately played exchanges I've seen in months. In terms of the story, however, it represents a terrible mistake, for Hench is not nearly ready to accept this kind of intimacy, and the action moves swiftly toward a series of terrible reckonings.

I won't describe what follows except to add that it features scenes that provide the cast with some of their finest opportunities -- Graynor does some of her finest work as Maggie desperately tries to make things right, tragically after the fact -- and it leads to a conclusion that is also marked by a certain unfortunate sentimentality. Jordan is an enormously talented writer -- her vision of the characters is appallingly vivid and her profanity-laced dialogue often feels savagely real -- but, in order to put the story in motion -- and, perhaps, to provide a bit of hope -- she makes certain compromises. The play's title refers to a nickname the boys have for Jennifer -- it's a variation of "Jen" -- but it is her appearance on the scene and much of her subsequent behavior that leave one feeling a little skeptical.

Cullman has also gotten largely exceptional work from his designers, which allows him to create many memorable staging moments. Wendland's set has a kind of letterbox configuration; the back wall functions as a kind of anamorphic screen for Lucy Mackinnon's projections; entering the theatre, one sees a high-speed film shot rushing through a downmarket London suburb near Heathrow. (The play is set in Feltham, which fits that description.) Later, she uses abstract imagery, of static and other visual noise, between the scenes, to add dramatic punctuation to the action. Ben Stanton's lighting rather daringly relies heavily on side washes, especially from LED bars placed outside the set's stage left window; this creates a kind of silhouette effect that makes for dramatic stage pictures but often leaves the actors' faces in shadow, a choice I frequently regretted. He does ease up on this in later scenes, creating a warmer look that suggests the calming effect Jennifer has on the boys' lives. Paloma Young's costumes provide important clues to the changing status of the characters. Fitz Patton's sound design includes such important effects as Taliban's offstage barking, and original music, largely in hip-hop style, that reflects the boys' musical tastes, such as they are.

In any case, Yen remains an often staggeringly powerful piece, with much to say about a society whose abdication of responsibility for its citizens has been replicated in their personal behavior. And it provides a golden opportunity to make the acquaintance of some superb young actors. Even when the script goes a little soft, they remain diamond hard. -- David Barbour

(6 February 2017)

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