Yen: When Boys are Treated like Dogs
I knew it was going to have a bite. This play falls in a genre of young playwrights, British this time, who write about dysfunctional youth, lost and uncared for, failed by their care givers and the system, acting out, living in squaller. And I wasn’t disappointed. The edginess of Anna Jordan’s Yen is blasted at you from the moment you walk in. The loud and frenetic projected video speaks volumes about what this play is going to feel like, but I wasn’t prepared for the disturbing sting and the quiet depressing view of these uncared for teen boys. And maybe the piece of hope, I don’t think I was ready for that either.
The boys, aged 14 and 16, live in a dingy council flat in England (great work by: scenic design: Mark Wendland; costumes: Paloma Young; lighting: Ben Stanton; projection: Lucy Mackinnon) and rarely ever leave. They survive on a diet of stolen food scraps, violent video games, and porn barely seen by their alcoholic self absorbed mother. They are as poorly treated as the mother’s dog, Taliban, that is also abandoned by her, shut up in the other room, barking and starving for food and affection.
Directed by Trip Cullman, these boys are poorly treated animals. Owned by their messed up mother, but not cared for. Housed but not fed nor loved. The first scene, a long drawn out evening as dull as their existence, is tedious but telling. Hench (played at this performance by Jack DiFalco, the understudy of the recently Oscar nominated Lucas Hedges, who I’m sad to report I missed) is simmering with rage and boredom. He is like a caged dog neglected and ready to snap. Dying for affection and food, dead eyed and sullen, he pulls us in through his sad lonely stare out the window. Only one tee shirt to be shared between him and his scrawny younger half brother, Bobby (a manic and overly excited Justice Smith), who is also itching to be loved and desperate for affection and engagement. He bounces around Hench like a hyperactive dog needing attention. Like the mistreated dog he is, Bobby loves unconditionally those around him, no matter what.
DiFalco does a fantastic job balancing the anger with the hunger and need. We ache for his salvation, but are on edge whether he will bite back. One traumatic symptom that Hench can’t escape remains a bit vague and unresolved. Does it in some way have to do with his loyalty to his mother? But in the end, the exact naming of the harm done is not given nor is it required. Regardless of those particular details, he’s obviously a damaged creature, rash and abused. Smith is a different kind of puzzle, more desperate and in need than Hench with an energy that is overwhelming. Exhausting to take in, I wonder if his frantic energy, similar to that of a naughty jack russell, is just too much. Smith has definitely made a choice, and one consistently presented, but a calmer less annoying temperament might have caused us to engage more in this lost young man. And feel the final Act outcome of the mistreatment to a greater degree.
When the wayward mother Maggie (an unsteady accented Ari Graynor who may actually be a little too put together for the role) does eventually show up, sadly for her own selfish reasons, Bobby throws himself at her with all the love and affection of a poorly trained puppy, protective and thrilled beyond words to have his ears scratched and a cuddle with his master. Graynor, starts off a bit shaky but strengthens as she moves through the piece. In Act 2, she excels; devastating in her discomfort and guilt. We almost can feel sorry for her struggling single mother status, and forgive her for her mistreatment. Almost. Hench does not feel the same way for the most part, his pain is far too consuming. He’s been beaten down one too many times by her, and even though loyal, he proceeds with caution and suspicion.
A ray of sunshine floats into that bleak flat one afternoon when a teenage girl from across the way, Jennifer (a complex and engaging Stefania LaVie Owen) knocks on the door. She is there because she has been watching. She sees a mistreated animal desperately scratching and staring out the window, starved and desperate, and badly in need of care. She is referring of course to Taliban, the ignored dog locked in the other room, but as it turns out, she is there not only to rescue the dog, but the teenage boy doing the same thing. Someone should have warned her to be a bit more careful about the dog that bites the hand that feeds it.
It’s a tremendously challenging and difficult play that the young Anna Jordan has written (and won great acclaim and awards in her home country of England). She shows great skill in story telling and a wonderful ear for interaction. Yen creates a world where children are left to fend for themselves because of selfishness, addiction, and a system that has failed them. Without boundaries and guidance, the teens decend into chaos, turning into wild desperate dogs. Jennifer shows up and brings light into their deplorable situation with food and care in a shopping bag, but is it too little too late? I’m happy to say there is a ray of hope for this clan, but one should have called the ASPCA on that mother, and had those animals taken away and given a proper home. It is a rough story to watch, but salvation is seen, possibly as the fog lifts, and the dog doesn’t appear to be as ferocious as it seemed. Maybe you can tame a wild dog.