Hench (Lucas Hedges), 16, and Bobbie (Justice Smith), 14, are brothers living alone in what looks like a sparsely furnished suburban London council flat. Their mother, Maggie (Ari Graynor), lives elsewhere with an abusive boyfriend who sounds like her most recent boyfriend but definitely not the father of either Hench or Bobbie.
Given the circumstances, the somewhat contained Hench is charged on a daily basis with bringing up Bobbie, who would likely be diagnosed as an extreme case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. That's if anyone in proper authority were to be in the position to offer a diagnosis. Indeed, Bobbie could easily qualify as in the top ranks of relentless hyperactivity.
When first viewed in Anna Jordan's Yen, at the Lucille Lortel, the brothers are watching porn on the flat screen television that, along with a bed and a chair, is the only notable object in this gloomy living room. Mark Wendland is the designer and appears to have intended to create a desolate environment that can also work as a metaphor for the boys' despair.
Unseen on stage but definitely heard barking from time to time in an offstage room is their hyperactive dog Taliban. (Sound designer Fitz Patton takes care of the barking.) It's explained that Taliban is named that way because he's "fierce."
Clearly, playwright Jordan is intent on bringing attention to current English affairs where children are left on their own to cope with living as best they can. She does so extremely effectively by zeroing in on these two lost boys who have no Peter Pan to rescue them. She quite ably shows the destructive results that follow from their virtual abandonment.
Yes, Maggie drops by occasionally to give lip service to her maternal role, but she's obviously more in thrall to the men in her life than she is to the boys in her life. The couple of times she rises to defend them don't register as unadulterated commitment.
During the few months that Yen unfolds, a catalyst for change does arrives--16-year-old Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), who's visiting the neighborhood confine. Hench invites her to spend time with Bobbie and him, and over the hours she does, she shows herself to be uncommonly wise. Totally forthcoming about her feelings, she falls for Hench and he for her, although while she openly declares her feelings, he's initially unable to respond in kind. In one of Jordan's most touching scenes, Hench does get up the gumption to ask Jennifer to teach him how to touch.
Because, however, Hench and Bobbie are so emotionally arrested by their circumstances, Jennifer's presence has eventual repercussions that negatively affect not only the progress Hench has begun to make but exacerbates Bobbie's unrestrained adolescent behavior.
Detailing how this plays out would spoil the Yen developments that are both disturbing and, from a few perspectives, all but inevitable. Again, that's got to be playwright Jordan's aim in calling attention to ingrained societal deficiencies.
Director Trip Cullman pulls no punches as, among other things, Hench and Bobbie indulge in typical sibling rivalry that often start as horseplay but can turn too quickly into more physically damaging punches. (The fight direction is by J. David Brimmer.)
In Yen, sequence after sequence in is extremely moving. The Hench-Jennifer exchange mentioned above is one, but they're abundant. Another is a late-in-play talk Maggie and Bobbie have when he's gotten himself into a situation that causes him at long last to stop his all-but-constant pogoing.
The acting, under Cullman's eye, is praise-worthy. Hedges, making a stage debut and currently Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea, conveys the confusion Hench experiences as a child having to raise a younger child. His longing to mature while not knowing how that's accomplished is heart-tugging. There's also a smartly-staged late back-and-forth between Hench and Jennifer when their relationship has undergone an unfortunate transition.
Owen, as Jennifer, gives a clear-eyed performance that seems beyond the character's years. Her unusual talent is hard to miss. Playing Maggie, Graynor is a mother uncertain of her abilities. Furthermore, she cleverly gets across that whenever Maggie visits, she's under the influence of drugs as well as under the thumb of a tyrannical partner.
As for Smith, his has the full impact of a breakout performance. It's not every day that youthful exuberance is displayed with quite so little restraint. His carrying-on goes so far that--and this has to be Jordan's demand--he starts to wear out the audience. If so, he's only instilling in patrons the fatigue that Hench registers.
There's an old saying that goes "youth must be served." Yen delves into what profoundly disturbing can take hold when youth isn't served.