It’s so rare to see an Off-Broadway play explode on every artistic level, as the strangely titled “Yen” does at the Lucille Lortel on Christopher St. Meant as a vehicle for rising star and Oscar nominee ( in Supp. Actor) Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea,” he surprises and surpasses on every level possible. Main among them the revelatory fact that young ( 20 yr.old ) Lucas Hedges is no flash in the pan. He fulfills every expectation and surpasses them. He is simply on his way to being one of the greatest young actors of his generation.He’s shaved his mop top of solid red hair and goes completely bald as British skin-head, Hench, in Anna Jordan’s electric new play “Yen.” It is being given a superb American debut production by director Trip Cullman, whose career I have admired and followed for many years now. Cullman has a way of getting career performances out of his actors and he’s done that here with Ari Graynor, Stefania LaVie Owen and Justice Smith.
Yen which is a nick-name of Owen’s character Jen, is no walk in the park, and is not for the faint of heart. It’s a total gut punch. I felt, too, like Hedges’ character does in the play’s bloody climax, as if I was banging my head into a wall over and over and over again. The sense of the characters’ frustrations are contagious, palpable. But in the best sense of the word. It was exhilarating. And enlightening. It was like it was as dangerous as being caught in a lightning storm at sea with columns of lightning bolts shooting all around you. You see them blazing everywhere . At any moment , you might be hit.
It starts with Hedges nude to the waist and barefoot picking his nose and watching pornography with a dead-eyed expression, while his younger brother Bobbie, also shirtless and barefoot, is jumping around the dirty bed-sit stage like a Mexican jumping bean on speed. Or meth. He’s on something. Because he doesn’t stop imitating the sound of their German Shepherd Taliban who is cooped up off-stage (we hear him, but we never see him) growling and snarling and roaring through this play, like a bat or a German Shepherd out of hell.
Taliban is caged and so are these two teenaged boys. And we soon find out why as they drag their comatose, drug-addicted, passed-out-drunk mother in through the doorway of their rancid council flat. Ari Graynor is magnificence personified as this young actress tackles these multiple addictions and her two equally addicted, pubescent teenage sons, executing just how twisted her under-class life has made her, in a Cockney accent that is totally spot on. As is Hedges’ and is Justice Smith’s. Smith performs the disturbed Bobbie at a decibel and enery-level that is superhuman. You don’t know what dangerous thing he and/or Hench might do that prefigures the violence that occurs as the play progresses.
But the violence is not telegraphed. It’s just THERE. A part of these lower-class have-nots’ lives. I’d say this play was a continuation of John Osborne’s Angry Young Man, working class anti-hero from the ’50s. It’s a kitchen sink drama, except these people are so poor they don’t even HAVE a kitchen sink.
As the play spirals downward, the only glimmer of hope is represented by the entrance of Jennifer or Jen. “Yen” to her family. A sweet Welsh girl, who has just moved into the neighborhood, and is clearly attracted to the hunky Hench ( Hedges )who spends most of the play in his underpants. Stefania LaVie Owen totally nails this difficult accent, too. As well embodying Yen’s warmth and gritty/slutty attraction. She is astonishingly making her stage debut in this difficult role in this difficult play. But they are all orbiting around Lucas Hedges’ miraculous sun. His talent is out-size and blazing, and he more than fulfills the high expectations his complex Oscar-nominated performance as the troubled, recalcitrant nephew in “Manchester by the Sea,” has set. And “Manchester” has set that bar HIGH.
Hench is a much more difficult role. He has to carry the entire, angry play, barefoot and half-naked, and make you hate him, but love him, and fear him and fear FOR him at the same time. It’s astonishing. HE’S astonishing.
“Yen” is closing in March, so you better move fast and see it before it vanishes into theatrical lore as Lucas Hedges’ blazing theatrical debut.
#Oscar Nominee Best Supporting Actor
#Manchester by the Sea