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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 31, 2017

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges
Photo by Joan Marcus

What's going on inside Hench's head? There's no way to be sure, but boy, do you ever want to find out. As played by the outstanding Lucas Hedges, the 16-year-old boy-man-boy at the center of Anna Jordan's play Yen, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production, is clearly in the grip of feelings and thoughts he can't express—and, most likely, doesn't even comprehend. He knows that his current existence is untenable, that he has no real connection to his family, and that he needs something more to be complete, but that's not enough to drive him from the inexorable course of pain, rage, and loss he's been on for his whole life. And for that, if nothing else in Trip Cullman's grating production, you'll be infinitely grateful.

Hedges, the breakout star of Kenneth Lonergan's acclaimed recent film Manchester by the Sea, is as natural a fit for Hench here as he was for Patrick there, marshaling his unique brand of dark innocence in service of letting us see the thousands of complicated layers of a person who is all too real. His Hench falls equally under the thrall of video games (first-person shooters, of course) as pornography, in both cases riveted to the TV screen as he stares at vistas and experiences beyond his imagination. He derives seemingly as much satisfaction in playing with (or perhaps torturing) his younger brother, Bobbie, with whom he shares his fixations and almost all of his time. And he is, without question, the type of male who knows he is not yet ready to be a man.

Yet a man he is, as he's apparently in charge of the London borough home he inhabits with his brother—and, only on the rarest of occasions, it looks like, a parent (their mother). As Hedges plays him, Hench is continually pulled between the now and the future, forced to stand up to his drug-addled mom (who makes no secret of Bobbie being her favorite, when she deigns to show up), and conducting an emotionally covert romance with the girl, Jennifer, who barges in one day in an attempt to save the boys' dog from the maltreatment she can observe through the window. Their relationship proceeds slowly at first, as they integrate her into their garbage-strewn, libidinous world, but once she's in, it's a matter of time before they're touching each other where no one else ever has, and planning to do a lot more.

So convincing is Hedges, in fact, at demonstrating Hench's rapid-fire growth that when he performs an action that proves he still has a long way to go before crossing the threshold into adulthood, it comes as a genuine shock: We don't believe that he's capable of fully embracing either a preadolescent's whimsy or a grownup's violent choices, but he is. And when he's racked with sobs as he contemplates his handiwork, we realize, just as he does, what's been shattered, and we want to cry right along with him. He's that arrestingly real.

Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith
Photo by Joan Marcus

He's the only thing that is. Despite her generally fine treatment of Hench, Jordan does not succeed at eliciting much humanity from her other characters, choosing instead to stab at broad points about topics such as adolescence and neglect without ever drawing blood. Each part of the scenario is unbelievable on its face; we're simply given no good reason to accept why the boys live alone, how Jennifer is so easily able to infiltrate their fortress, or why the final resolution occurs as it does. Everyone performs or endures horrific acts, and keeps coming back for more, without letting us see either the curiosity, the self-loathing, the attraction, or the... well, anything else that might anchor it. It whiffs of pushing pieces around, not developing a story.

Worse, Jordan telegraphs everything, and leaves nothing to the imagination. (Lest you miss the various messages, Bobbie is somehow mentally impaired, the kids' dog is named Taliban, the family is too poor to afford more than one T-shirt for two teenagers, and Jennifer explains at length her improbable nickname, Yen.) None the huge plot twists, and there are several, come as a surprise, and there's no nuance or questionable interpretation of them. The underlying theme, of the erasure of the barrier between children and adults under the right wrong circumstances, is straight out of The Lord of the Flies, and certainly, a number of elements resemble those in William Golding's novel. But without a foundation and a point, it's meaningless—purely for effect. And without actors and a director who are perfectly in sync, that effect fizzles far more than it sears.

Justice Smith is a total loss as Bobbie, looking and behaving laughably too old, with every line and gesture grotesquely overstated, and conveying not a speck of the essentially unspoiled nature he needs to traverse Bobbie's full, tragic journey. As mom Maggie, Ari Graynor struggles without success to center a woman whose actions are all but inexplicable; it's possible Jordan intended her unknowability to wrench us into Hench and Bobbie's perspective, but that just comes through as a jagged, sloppy amalgam of a cuddle bunny and a coke whore. Stefania LaVie Owen, as Jennifer, comes closest to matching Hedges's power, and their scenes together have legitimate heat, but she overplays both the girl and the woman enough that you can't pinpoint the vital, heartbreaking transition you ought to see between one and the other.

Cullman's staging is all broad strokes and shouting, creating a quartet of colorless caged zoo animals and doing the parched script no favors. It's archly and obviously presented, too, against Mark Wendland's insane-asylum-suburbia set, with unnecessarily stark lights by Ben Stanton, too-raw sound and music by Fitz Patton, and hyperkinetic projections by Lucy Mackinnon, thus imparting the notion that quiet, and stillness don't and shouldn't exist, and you'd best just learn to deal with it.

Hedges, though, never does. Many of his most compelling moments are his smallest: when he's rapt by gunshot wounds or sweaty flesh being streamed over his computer and you see the gears in his head trying to work out the images, when he's confronted the female of his dreams and can only stand frozen before a universe of alluring possibilities, or when he must own his deepest mistakes and can barely hold himself together beneath a mask of confused anger. At these times, he's choked by want, and watching him emerge from it to claim the consequences, whether good or bad, is a riveting, moving experience. What the rest of Yen wants and needs, though, no one else involved seems at all interested in giving.

Through February 19
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix