Intermission Talk

 

 

Everyone’s Got a “Yen”

for “Dear Evan Hansen”

 

by TONY VELLELA

It’s a rather old-fashioned word, one that can easily be applied to all four characters in Anna Jordan’s new play “Yen,” in the MCC production at the Lucille Lortel.  Three teens living in a squalid housing project flat discover, through an achingly emotional and physical series of events, that they each have their own yen, hard to identify and harder to satisfy.

The boys, half-brothers Hench [age16] and 14-year-old Bobbie, fill their time watching porn on television, playing violent video games, and rough-housing, a situation that should have ended long ago, when their drug-addicted, widowed mother moved next door to camp out with relatives.   The boys’ main-room existence does not include the mother, who lives nearby, nor the attack dog, which lives in a side room, and is heard but never seen.

What’s missing in each of these scraped lives [18-year-old Jennifer, given a real presence by Stefania LaVie Owen,  also lives next door] is order, certainty, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to simply settle into a peaceful, and safe haven.  There’s a good deal of rough-and-tumble, when one of the brothers starts to jostle the other over anything major or minor.  The near manic antics of Bobbie nearly fill the space, his 14-year-old self having less self-control or social order than his older brother, and Justice Smith makes excellent use of the fight direction provided by fight director J. David Brimmer.

But even more outstanding is the work of Lucas Hedges, who must maintain a delicate balance between trying to calm his own fears and keep his brother’s and his mother’s disruptions under control.  Hedges, who was favored with an Best Supporting Oscar Nomination this year for his equally gripping portrayal of a young man in crisis, in “Manchester by the Sea,” possesses a rare quality not often seen in young actors.  Hedges, whether having learned it in some intense acting class, or brought it to himself personally, possesses a kind of discipline that permits his character to  project stillness, or as they used to say ‘center’ himself,’ a characteristic that has served well some of the previous generations’ best, including Montgomery Clift, and currently, Eddie Redmayne.

What ‘happens’ in the days we see them, in “Yen,”, varies little from what happens when we are not there.  The boys  steal whatever they need by way of food and clothing [currently one clean T-shirt between them].  The mother hopes to spot something in their apartment whenever she drops in, that she can nick from them and pawn for drug money.  And lost soul Jennifer uses the distress of the fiercely barking dog, named Taliban for obvious reasons, as her excuse to get into the boys’ lives, and satisfy her yen for a connection to these her-age young men, and possibly spark a sexual adventure.

“Yen” does not offer much permanent hope for anyone, but it does make for a more-than-satisfying theatrical event, especially witnessing theatrical emergence of Lucas Hedges, destined to make his mark on many more roles to come.

By sheer coincidence, uptown at the Music Box, another twenty-year-old actor has been setting off sparks of excitement with his remarkable performance in the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen.”  A classic loner, he explains to his parents, sister and friends that the cast that encases his forearm came from falling out of a tree.  We learn quickly not to trust much of anything Ben relates to us, because he has devolved into an inwardly-focused young man, totally bereft of any of the social skills needed by anyone of his generation or class.  His only ‘friend’ is the son of a neighbor.

To help cure him of these alarming  withdrawals, his parents have enlisted a therapist whose method of reversing such a condition is to have the young man write a letter to himself each morning, outlining why the coming day will be so successful, hence the title.

And here is where the stunning discovery comes in.  Young Evan is portrayed by the remarkably gifted  Ben Platt, who, from almost the first few moments on stage, shows us just how damaged Evan is.  The music, by “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, offer Platt an opening number – “For Forever” – which shows his instability, his lack of confident stance, and his overall vulnerability.  One morning, in the school’s computer lab, he writes his therapeutic “Dear Evan Hansen” letter, outlining ‘his’ great qualities and attractive features, and in a rush to get to class, sees the other class outsider, Connor [a chilling portrayal by Mike Faist], and in their hurrying to get to their classes, bump into each other.  Evan’s to-himself letter winds up stuffed in Connor’s pocket, where it is discovered later that night, when Connor chooses to hang himself.

Now, this may not sound like ripe material for a musical, but these days, they’re making magic with that genre.  Just recall “Next to Normal,” “Rent” and “Grey Gardens,” all of which were helmed by Michael Grief, who handled directing duties here so expertly.

The electrifying stand-out element in the show is the portrayal of its central character.  Ben Platt possesses some of the most exquisite talents ever seen on a Broadway stage, which give him the freedom to express just how deeply wounded and entrapped young Evan is.  More and more plot mix-ups and entanglements ensue, including a student-led campaign to try to honor Connor’s distress, and at the same time, to interpret the discovered letter in Connor’s pocket as one, undelivered,  from Connor, meant to be sent to Evan.  When it finally implodes, Evan makes his peace with his guilty feelings that he has been leeching off Connor’s death, and the welcoming into Connor’s family by Connor’s parents.

Yeah – heavy stuff.  But Steven Levenson’s finely-honed book keeps the story line clear enough to hold you, and the score serves the story well.  But it is the performance of young Ben Platt, all twitchy and jittery, all desperate, the vibratto in his voice telegraphing a broken soul with nowhere to put its underappreciated emotional reserve, that grabs and holds you throughout the entire musical.  It’s a rich season on Broadway for seeing new, breath-taking performances, from Platt and Hedges.  I’ll get you a baby-sitter if you need to find one, in order to get to see these shows.

On Book

Let’s look over our shoulders for a moment, and try to see where today’s theatre scene came from.  The iconic theatre master Jacob Adler, brother of Stella, compiled years ago a vivid memoir titled “A Life on the Stage,” which will enlighten you to those heady days in lower Manhattan when where was no television, no radio programs and not much else in the way of live entertainment.  From Applause Books, this volume  was translated with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, and gives you a new perspective on our heritage.

AfterPlay

 

Tennessee Williams followers may be pleased to hear that the production of “God Looked Away,” currently at the Pasadena Playhouse, is rumored to be readying for a Broadway run.  Written by Dotson Rader, about his intimate relationship with Williams, has Robert Allan Ackerman as its director . . .  also just over the horizon [again] is “Prince of Broadway,” the fascinating tale of the life and career[s] of Hal Prince.   Mr. Prince will direct, with co-direction and choreography supplied by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman.  And like “God Looked Away,” no word on time or place . . . what is in place is the Transport Group’s “William Inge in Repertory,” which will feature rotating productions of “Picnic” and “Come Back, Little Sheba,” starting on Thursday, February 23 under the direction of TG’s Jack Cummings III.  Its rep schedule can be found at transportgroup.org.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts, and his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” by ArtAge.  He has written for dozens of magazines and newspapers, three books, nine other plays and musicals, and has taught theatre related sessions at HB Studios and the 92nd St. Y.

 

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666 – 6666.

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