If you’ve seen Manchester By The Sea (of course you have), you already know that Lucas Hedges has the seething sullen-teen thing down. This gifted young actor raises the stakes to James Dean-ian heights in his smashing stage debut as Hench, an angry British boy with no idea how to make a human connection, in Yen, Anna Jordan’s rousing UK import via off-Broadway’s MCC Theater.
Sixteen-year-old Hench and his younger half-brother Bobbie (Justice Smith, another up-and-comer, from Netflix’s The Get Down) are barely getting by in the crappy South London flat they share courtesy of their largely absent mother Maggie (the superb Ari Graynor), who infrequently shows up in a drugs-and-alcohol haze looking for money and maybe some love. The money is nowhere to be found (the boys are so broke they have to share the single T-shirt that hasn’t been pinched or sold, when one needs to go out). The love comes from Bobbie, all too eager to snuggle with Mommy (when he isn’t bedded with his brother on the single pull-out). Hench, on the other hand, is impervious when he isn’t overtly hostile, to his needy, demanding Mum.
Mostly the boys play violent video games and watch porn, Hench intently, Bobby when he isn’t bouncing off the surfaces in Trip Cullman’s hyperventilated production. In an unseen room there’s a nasty dog named Taliban (“because he’s violent and he’s brown,” Bobbie explains) whose neglect and abuse matches the boys’ own. That gives rise to the arrival of Jennifer, a lonely Welsh girl who recently moved in nearby and is concerned about Taliban’s yelping, audible on the street below. Yen, as she was nicknamed by her recently deceased father, played with throat-clutching delicacy by Stefania LaVie Owen, humorously folds in at first with the boys, joshing with Bobby and making oh-so-tentative contact with the push-me-pull-you Hench, who’s given to recurring nightmares that cause him to wet the bed. The two of them make plans to run away together.
You can guess it will not end well, and you’d be right. Playwright Jordan reminds me of the young Stephen Poliakoff, who in the 1970s was writing similar mad-angry plays like Hitting Town and City Sugar before maturing into the successful author of such award-garnering fare as Gideon’s Daughter and the Golden Globe-winning Dancing On The Edge for the likes of Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and other Crown thespian royalty. Yen is a not entirely controlled drama, and it’s predictable in some aspects. But the writing, and this superb production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village, bristle with youthful talent — the kind that makes you remember names. Or, as in the case of Lucas Hedges, confirms the status of a player with a very bright future.