"Yen" is a remarkable production that does the extraordinary: It creates empathy for people that we otherwise would likely have no empathy for.
Hench (Lucas Hedges) and Bobbie (Justice Smith) are impoverished teenagers, so desperately poor that they share a shirt and steal to eat — though they do have a new TV, a computer and a game system. They live alone in public housing outside London; their drug-addicted mother (Ari Graynor) visits them sometimes, but only when she needs something. They spend their days watching porn and playing video games and making disgusting jokes about women. And they've also abandoned their dog in the bedroom, never taking it out and only occasionally feeding it. It snaps and barks incessantly in the other room.
The dog is what sparks Jenny (Stefania LaVie Owen) to visit from across the street after seeing it scratching inside their apartment window. Also a teenager, she has a way with animals and offers to take the dog for a walk, to feed it, anything to help.
Jenny's calm and gentle presence opens the boys up; they become sillier, more relaxed. They start to talk about feelings. "Yen" we're told, is the nickname Jenny's deceased father gave her — she notes that it also means "longing." Jenny is preternaturally sweet and mature for a teenager — it's the one inauthentic part of Anna Jordan's script — and she models something the boys have perhaps never seen before: empathy and kindness.
Jordan uses Jenny to illuminate the boys' humanity and youth. When everything goes wrong and the two of them commit a pair of terrible acts, we see them not as super-predators, but as two young people who don't know how to handle their rage and confusion. They've have been brought up to believe that nothing they do and nothing they are will ever matter to anyone. Our heart breaks for them both.
This is a tragedy, yet Trip Cullman's production goes down easy. It's witty and energetic — the 13-year-old Bobbie bounds across the furniture when he's excited — and the action moves swiftly. But Cullman's true genius shows in the desolate vulnerability he evokes from all four actors. In Graynor's hands, we see how much the mother loves her boys. Smith shows us the soft underbelly of confusion at the center of Bobbie's emotional instability.
And then there's Hedges, recently nominated for an Oscar for his role in the movie "Manchester By the Sea." His character says very little, and yet when Hench struggles to speak, the emotions that range across his face tell the entire story of his short, wrecked life.
By Anna Jordan; directed by Trip Cullman
At MCC Theater through March 4