YEN at MCC Theater

If you’re looking for a normal review of last season’s Yen at MCC Theater, then keep looking.

Since scheduling forced me to see Trip Cullman’s production of Anna Jordan’s play a tad too early in its run, fully unsheathing my critical knives would be a bit unfair.

As such, I’ll rely on butter knives instead, mostly because Yen seemed awfully DOA; no amount of work could’ve significantly fixed the dramatically limp text totally bereft of present stakes. Barring a complete overhaul, shaking the feeling that we’ve already seen too many better versions of this play – about miserable working-class teenagers toiling away at their work-free, perpetually struggle-filled lives – was most likely impossible.

It’s never a good sign when the most dramatic aspect of a drama is the title, which was one of the few thoughtful components of the piece. “Yen” translates to longing in Japanese, and the only transcendent part of the characters’ lives is their shared, universally-resonant YEarNing to connect with the outside world. Each wants to forge a meaningful relationship with someone or something beyond the restrictive confines of their apartment that they’ve been forced to occupy thanks to the inherited effects of their parents’ impoverished existences.

This subtle substance of the title would’ve been commendable if it hadn’t been robbed in a dialogue exchange that baldy started with, “Do you know what Yen means?” Right when I thought I could praise, Yen pulled me back to criticism.

In the name of mentioning at least SOME positive elements: Jordan effectively peppers in modern jargon throughout, which is a rarity on the stage, as is her realistic incorporation of playing video games. Oh, and I can score more points of kindness by mentioning that Cullman moved bodies in space freely, liberally, and most importantly, naturally. Plus, he maintained the pace (probably to keep tepid audiences awake) with impressively-speedy scene transitions.

Commenting on the acting requires me to return to negativity. Lucas Hedges – known for his Oscar-nominated breakout role in Manchester by the Sea – did too little to register in a theatre where a camera can’t pick up every nuance, a common pitfall for screen actors. On the other end of the spectrum, Justice Smith – moderately-known for his quasi-breakout role in the Netflix series The Get Down – did WAY TOO MUCH, either because he was unwisely playing to the balcony or because he was wisely trying to compensate for the lackluster writing. In any case, he confused manic antics with building a character. Stefania LaVie Owen did nothing with nothing. And I can’t even evaluate Ari Graynor’s performance because her accent was so terrible.

Which brings me to the reason I dug up this ancient review. Distractingly-bad accents infected the whole ensemble (Graynor more than the others), as often happens when Americans try to conquer British dialects. Being a card-carrying Anglophile, I of course show up whenever a theatre imports one of the many phenomenal plays written across the Atlantic. MCC is an off-Broadway leader in this department, and the company (usually) has quite a good nose for worthy texts (which was obviously not on display in Yen, though bad productions can very easily rob quality plays of their quality). AND YEN YET, their mountings almost always suffer from Yankees butchering Albion accents.

My suggestion: STOP TRYING.

Given the criminally-brief rehearsal periods afforded, literally and figuratively, off-Broadway, where time is money and money is tight, the performers will not be provided sufficient time with a dialect coach. As such, their subsequent accents will be, understandably, less than satisfactory, especially if they’re going for geographically-exact cadences (all Brits speak as similarly as New Yorkers sound like Texans).

So, like, why bother?

Yes, some plays are quintessentially British – for example: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – and thus need to retain their native language. But otherwise, theatre practitioners should pursue one of two fixes to this pervasive problem:

  1. Change the settings to America. National specificity of course inspires playwrights, but only a few of their plays exclusively work in their original locales. Yen could’ve easily taken place in a low-income area of America; its Britishness is by no means essential to comprehending the piece on a fundamental level. Everything could’ve been pretty simply translated to and for the left side of the Atlantic. I’m sure some would argue that this could rob certain communities of ever being represented on stage. My response:
  2. Don’t modify the texts at all…just don’t ask casts to perform using accents. Audiences may be confused at first, but they’ll soon forget about it because THEATRE IS ALL ABOUT SUSPENDING DISBELIEF. If people are fine with the notion that they’re sitting in New York City watching a story unfold in London, then they should be able to understand, without the aid of dialects, that these American actors are playing British characters. Coming to terms with this forsaking of reality will at most take a few minutes to get used to, whereas putting up with an unbearably-inaccurate accent lasts THE ENTIRE TIME. A momentary distraction is always more advisable than a sustained one. Plus, audiences should already be accustomed to this practice; not every Shakespeare production employs British accents in the same way not every Chekhov production employs Russian accents in the same way not every Ibsen production employs Norwegian accents (though I’d actually love to see one that tries) and so on and so forth. Heck, Ivo van Hove’s beloved A View from the Bridge didn’t even go with Brooklyn accents IN NEW YORK CITY, and did any of the notoriously-irascible Big Applers pipe up about it? Why would dialect-fidelity be accepted in revivals yet scorned in new plays?

Art is a universal language with a flexible accent, SO DOWN WITH DIALECTS FOREVER.


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