The barking dog locked in the next room isn’t the only animal neglected in Anna Jordan’s bleak, brutal yet surprisingly tender play “Yen,” making its American premiere in a powerfully acted and impressively staged MCC Theater production that stars newly minted Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”). Also left adrift are two Brit teenage half-brothers – 16-year-old Hench (Hedges, making an impressive stage bow) and 14-year-old Bobbie (Justice Smith of Netflix series “The Get Down,” in a dynamic turn) — who live by themselves in a filthy, near-empty apartment, playing video games, watching violent porn and sustaining themselves on stolen candy and drink. To leave their apartment — Mark Wendland designed the desolate set — the boys have to take turns wearing the single jersey they own.
The effects of abandonment and isolation mixed with a longing for human connection is brought to stark, vivid life under Trip Cullman’s unsparing direction. Fitz Patton’s music and sound design and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections also contribute to the jagged-edge feel of the production.
The boys’ alcoholic and diabetic mother Maggie (Ari Graynor) has left these fatherless sons — one dad died in an overdose, the other was convicted of rape — to their own devices in order to live with her latest abusive lover. But Mum occasionally drops by, mainly to scrounge for money or be worshipped with puppy-like neediness by Bobbie, desperate for any gesture of interest or affection. Not so fawning is brooding, hardened Hench, who keeps his distance from his mother while clearly still in her thrall.
Things change for the better — and worse — when a young Welsh neighbor, 16-year-old Jenny, nicknamed “Yen,” (Stefania LaVie Owen), intrudes on their isolated existence, concerned at first for the welfare of their dog Taliban (“Because he’s violent…and he’s brown,” says Bobbie, explaining the name.)
It doesn’t take long for the assertive, self-possessed Jenny to see in the brothers’ squalid, feral existence a parallel to the dog’s life. With the same acts of kindness she has for abandoned and abused creatures, she becomes a Wendy to their punk Peter Pans, as she tentatively reaches out, gradually bringing them — and the dog — food, clothing, human interaction and understanding. She also shares a history of parental neglect but, unlike the boys, has support from an extended family, seemingly a crucial difference. The three form an odd and, at first, promising bond: a sisterly relationship with Bobbie and perhaps something more with the closed-off Hench.
Hedges once again shows heartbreaking depth in his sense of stillness, shame and repressed feelings as the brother who aches for the human touch. The young actor evokes a world of hurt in his hopeless gaze and strangled speech.
As Bobbie, Smith is a tornado of kinetic energy, pubescent prattle and careening emotions, as he practically bounces off the walls (and literally bounces off their sofa-bed). It’s a high-hormonal performance that could wear thin after a scene or two if it weren;t for the frightfully lonely boy that Smith allows to show through.
Graynor gives a nuanced turn as the easy-to-loathe, irresponsible mother, shading her character’s shocking selfishness with flashes of guilt, terror and despair. And though her compassionate character is almost too good to be true, Owen brings an undercurrent of vulnerability to her assuredness, a complexity of ache to her pain and ultimately a sad yearning to understand the depths of human wounds that defy easy fixes.