By Ryan Leeds
“Love is Dangerous” headlines the poster for MCC’s production of playwright Anna Jordan’s Yen. There may be truth in that statement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that love will be interesting. Such is the case in this aimless coming of age tale, which opened last night at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.
This British import makes its American premiere with a gifted cast, including this year’s Oscar nominated actor, Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea. In Yen, Hedges portrays Hench, a 16-year-old who shares a ramshackle apartment with his slightly younger brother, Bobbie (Justice Smith), an ADHD sufferer. The pair has little to do in their suburban town of Feltham, a suburb just outside of London.
As the play opens, they are watching hardcore pornography and discussing the physical characteristics of their neighbor, 16-year-old Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen). For the most part, Hench and Bobbie are forced to survive on their own, no thanks to their mother Maggie (Ari Graynor). Given her involvement with a man dubbed “Minge Face Alan,” she rarely comes around and when she does, it is usually for emotional or physical support. Between neglect, full-blown alcoholism and diabetes, it’s safe to assume that Maggie won’t be winning any “Mother of the Year” awards anytime soon.
As the play unfolds, the boys’ neighbor, Jennifer (who ultimately becomes their object of affection), appears at their door and threatens police involvement if they do not take better care of their malnourished dog, Taliban. Not long after their encounter, a complicated love triangle unfolds.
Off Broadway favorite Trip Cullman directs the play to the best of his ability but it is Herculean task given the unenlightened material he’s been handed. From the beginning of civilization, most teenagers have had bouts of rage, angst, defiance, and sadness. Jordan explores all these emotions in her deeply flawed characters. In addition, most of them lack the capability to truly connect to one other—primarily due to the fact that they simply never learned how. It is a heartbreaking occurrence, but one that has been depicted on stage multiple times.
Hair, Rent, Spring Awakening, Runaways, and This is Our Youth all share a similar theme: disillusioned young people. Behind each of the characters in these pieces, however, there is a continuous buzz of addled energy and excitement. In spite of how draining their antics might be, we remain involved and invested in their broken lives until the curtain falls. In Yen, we feel as lost and bored as the characters on stage.
Mark Wendland’s appropriately dim and drab set of a squalid apartment does little to pull us into this world. Aside from some interesting visual projections by Lucy Mackinnon and engaging music/sound design by Fitz Patton, there isn’t much that drives the action.
Jordan also fails in her attempts to be shocking. There is a line between being provocative and trying to be provocative. Pornography and talk of explicit sexual acts might push the envelope way beyond what is shared in everyday conversation but here, it becomes more annoying and doesn’t add much to the character development. Nor does the frequent yelling and random tantrums that run rampant through Act One.
Yen was met with general critical approval when it played across the pond in 2015 and it may well be greeted in a similar vein here. At one point, Jennifer tells Bobbie and Hench that her father used to call her “Yen,” which means, “longing; to long for something.” By the end of this overly long two-hour drama, New York audiences might well be longing for something more, too. Perhaps some substance?
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St, NYC
Through February 19
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.