Written by Anna Jordan
Directed by Trip Cullman
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
More “Of Mice and Men” than “Orphans,” “Yen,” currently playing at MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, dives headlong into the miasma of dysfunctional families without abandon and lands in a matrix of enduring questions that British playwright Anna Jordan decides not to answer in this play that makes its way from a successful run at the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester, England to the MCC stage in the West Village.
Hench (played with a soulful and dispirited sadness by Lucas Hedges) and his half-brother Bobbie (played with a sad longing by Justice Smith) share the pull-out sofa bed in their addict mother’s Council Flat in the Housing Project in the London Borough of Feltham. Although it is Maggie’s (played with a malicious and shattered persona by Ari Graynor) government funding that allows her to have the flat, she lives with her current boyfriend Alan, leaving her sons from her marriages to two addict husbands (one died with a needle in his arm) to fend for themselves. Poverty and dysfunction have left indelible scars on these two children. Hench is sixteen, Bobbie fourteen and neither is attending school. They survive by stealing what they need for themselves – things often taken by Maggie when she drops by or gets dragged up the stairs in a coma from the street below the flat.
Hench is introspective and sullen and was probably sexually abused as a child. Bobbie is suffering from a severe case of psoriasis and bounces around the flat unable to control his emotions, his attention span, or his hygiene. Both watch porn and play violent video games. Then there is their violent dog Taliban who occupies the bedroom, never gets walked, and seems to live in the same squalor as his owners. Into this mess comes Jennifer, a transplant from Wales living across the way in adolescent ennui. Jennifer (played with doleful yet savvy core by Stefania LaVie Owen) wants to care for Taliban but ends up wanting to care for the boys and to help Hench “open up.”
This exposition takes the first act of one-hour and fifteen minutes to be revealed. After Maggie drags Bobbie off to Alan’s, leaving Jennifer and Hench to bond in the ways lonely adolescents often bond. The second act, more violent and shocking, still leaves the audience wondering why Ms. Jordan wrote “Yen.” Trip Cullman’s staging depends heavily on loud and violent projections (designed by Lucy Mackinnon) to add to the mood of the play (as does Ben Stanton’s sparse lighting). It would seem giving more attention to Ms. Jordan’s script and trusting its strength would have given the piece more purpose.
Love and tenderness, even when applied with the intent of gentleness, often and unexpectedly open deep wounds. After Jennifer applies cream to Bobbie’s flared-up psoriasis, Maggie bristles with the rage of the challenged addict. After Jennifer applied a heavy dose of affection – also with the best of intentions – Hench recoils with the buried hurt of the sexually abused child and, as he did as a child, wets the bed shared by Jennifer (as he often does when he shares his bed with Bobbie).
Jennifer imposes herself uninvited into a disturbed and dysfunctional family system. Any attempt at disrupting family systems layered with years of collusion and calumny results in change or in retrenchment. And retrenchment – as is the case with these feral half-brothers – is often accompanied by the kind of implosive and explosive violence for which Taliban often exhibits and which rarely results in healing and surcease.
Without successful intervention, the cycles of poverty and sexual abuse never are broken. Children like Bobbie and Hench become the broken ones perpetually “rescued” by the well-meaning Jennifers of the world, but more often than not, the Maggies of the world who revel in madness and dysfunction relentlessly continue to poison all opportunities for redemption and release.