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A CurtainUp Review

"She'll think we're weird."
"Well, she ought to find out sometime."

(L-R) Lucas Hedges, Ari Graynor, and Justice Smith (Photo: Joan Marcus)
On the surface, it sounds like brothers Hench (Lucas Hedges) and Bobbie (Justice Smith) live a life some teenage boys would dream of. With nobody around to force them to go to school, they spend their days hanging out in a flat that belongs to their absentee mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), where they play video games and watch porn.

But what seems like ultimate freedom might be better described as a prison. The boys are barely able to take care of themselves; Bobbie, for example, tries to use body spray as a fabric cleanser, air deodorizer, and mouthwash. They regularly get into physical altercations as they compete over space and resources, like the single shirt they share. They also can't take care of their dog, Taliban, which attracts the attention of their animal-loving neighbor Jenny (Stefania LaVie Owen).

Early on, Yen, Anna Jordan's new drama that makes its US debut at MCC under Trip Cullman's precise direction, alarmingly seems like it might be some kind of romantic comedy where a woman magically shows up to fix the dysfunction in a male character's life, despite the fact that they're quite ill-suited to one another. But we ultimately come to find that Jordan has something else in mind.

I won't spoil the story here, but I will say that while Jordan sows the seeds all along that build towards the play's ending, they aren't always obvious. Yen winds up in a very different place than it starts; if you read these cues one way, the conclusion will seem inevitable, but other interpretations of the play's start may leave you surprised at its end. After the play concludes, however, it's easy to revisit what happened earlier on and realize how even moments that seemed innocuous, even funny, when we first saw them end up being more consequential and fraught in hindsight.

The cast here, and Cullman's direction, is exceptional. Hedges—who some will recognize from his recent Academy Award–nominated performance as another troubled teen in Manchester by the Sea— (Curtainup's review)— leads the ensemble with a performance that delicately balances intense emotionality and equally strong denial of those emotions. He clearly illustrates the inner (and, in some cases, physical) turmoil of his character in a way that never seems overwrought. This turbulence becomes quite affecting as well as jarring.

Smith skillfully embodies Bobbie's split nature as a child just coming into young adulthood without any of the emotional coping skills necessary to make that transition. His telling physicality, jerky and aggressive, hints towards his character's deeper struggles, as do Bobbie's interactions with his mother. Graynor's carefully considered depiction of Maggie, meanwhile, is finely nuanced, emphasizing how close she is to her children in age and position and yet so distant from them in nearly every other way. Maggie's flaws are never explained away, but Graynor makes it difficult to judge her character despite the obvious reasons to do so.

Jenny's character skirts dangerously around the territory occupied by the stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, complicating the job for Owen. At times her character feels too much like a constructed salvation for Hench, but the actress plays the role with an unrelenting honesty that rings sincere even at those moments when the character feels like more of an artificiality. This makes her joys, and sorrows, some of the most palpable.

Incidentally, Owen grapples skillfully with Jenny's tricky Welsh accent (and, indeed, dialect coach Stephen Gabis is to be commended for the strong accent work of the entire cast of Americans playing UK nationals).

The entrapment of Hench and Bobbie within their circumstances resonates nicely within Mark Wendland's box-like set design with its dramatically low ceiling and long, spartan walls. The original music and sound design by Fitz Patton pairs with Lucy Mackinnon's projection design to both locate the play geographically and evoke the emotional states of the brothers. The music and projected footage imbue a sense of noise, of distraction and distortion, that feels appropriate to the hyper-masculine version of adolescence the brothers embody, and that comes to life most vividly in the fights directed by J. David Brimmer.

It is on this level that Yen delivers its real punch: not as a romance between two star-crossed lovers, but as a drama about a family torn apart by both circumstance and personal decisions alike. That's not to say the romantic plot isn't important within the show, but it's the play's physically bold, visceral look at the ugliness that can exist within a family, and the bonds that persist nonetheless, that lingers afterward.

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Yen by Anna Jordan
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Ari Graynor (Maggie), Lucas Hedges (Hench), Stefania LaVie Owen (Jennifer), and Justice Smith (Bobbie)
Scenic Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Paloma Young
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Original Music and Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Projection Design: Lucy Mackinnon
Fight Direction: J. David Brimmer
Special Effects: Jeremy Chernick
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Production Supervisor: Five OHM Productions
Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
Presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets: $49-$99; (866) 811-4111 or
From 1/12/2017; opened 1/31/2017; closing 2/19/2017
Performance times: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 1/28/2017 performance

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