REVIEW: Young Jean Lee’s quietly enveloping “Straight White Men”
Long the default against which every other group of Americans is descriptively compared, straight white men, as a demographic category, have only relatively recently emerged in popular conversation. And that conversation hasn’t been too friendly to them—for good cause.
The phrase alone conjures among many a stark image of a colonizing brute bathed in toxic masculinity—the powerful oppressor responsible for all of the inequalities and injustices that plague our society since he has always been in charge: think Hollywood, think CEOs, think presidents. With few exceptions: Straight. White. Men.
The category suggests a host of connotations, no doubt inspired by where you sit and how you identify. But like all labels, it doesn’t tell the full story. Amid the proliferation of important dialogue about race, gender, and sexual orientation in recent years, we (I include myself here) so often neatly trade in monoliths, speaking as if all people so designated—straight white men, trans black women, you name it—are the same.
We casually deal in black and white, while dispensing with the glorious gray where most of life exists. It makes for easy argument and no doubt bolsters crucial, even life-saving senses of confidence and community within marginalized groups, but it can also de-humanize those with whom we disagree or do not associate, at worst instilling a dangerous sense of personal superiority premised upon identity, and collectively furthering the divisive cleavages that are tearing at the fabric of our society.
No one likes for the entirety of their existence to be reduced to a label, and so doing undermines much of what fights for equality are all about. Of course honest (which often means uncomfortable) conversations about privilege, racism, sexism, and homophobia are essential for progress. But what if instead of shouting about cleanly imagined monoliths, we could engage in thoughtful, nuanced conversation that digs deep into our messy reality?
Enter Young Jean Lee, the straight Asian-American woman who wrote “Straight White Men”, a quietly enveloping play that opened on Broadway Monday night at the Helen Hayes Theatre under the auspices of Second Stage Theater, which nobly dedicates itself solely to producing works by living American writers.
The play, which premiered at the Public Theater in 2014 with Ms. Lee directing, receives a tightly directed and finely acted production in its Broadway bow, thanks to director Anna D. Shapiro and a central quartet of, well, straight white men: Armie Hammer, Josh Charles, Paul Schneider, and Stephen Payne.
Ms. Lee is the first female Asian-American playwright to be produced on Broadway. “What took so long?” is the right question to have pop in your head. It’s been in mine since the play was announced, and the lamentable absence of Ms. Lee’s voice on America’s most prominent stages is made stark following the impressive 90 minutes of her smart, funny, and surprising play, which proves the vitality and importance of elevating diverse voices in the American theater.
As described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Ms. Lee’s work has been about “identity politics and identity crises in the lives of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, feminists and evangelicals.” Her governing principle as a dramatist is to shatter preconceptions by diving deep into unexplored questions of identity, flipping the script wherever she can.
“Straight White Men” is, as the title suggests, about straight white men, specifically three adult brothers who have reunited to spend Christmas with their aging father somewhere in the Midwest. Drew (Armie Hammer), the youngest, is an all-American hot-shot writer and professor who extols the virtues of therapy. Jake (Josh Charles), the middle, is a successful banker bro living a comfortable life despite a recent divorce. Matt (Paul Schneider), the oldest, is a soft-spoken office temp at a community-service organization, despite his degree from Harvard, who has moved back in with their dad, Ed (Stephen Payne), a retired engineer and widower, and handles all the cooking and cleaning.
To their enormous credit, the relationships among these men are acutely defined and well-developed. They might not look like brothers, but anyone with siblings will believe Matt, Jake, and Drew’s interactions, which impressively carry a sense of shared history. Mr. Payne, who as an understudy only formally took on the role of Ed during previews, similarly nails this dynamic.
Patrons enter the renovated auditorium of the Helen Hayes Theatre and are greeted by oppressively loud hip-hop music by female rappers, and a curtain of silver mylar fringe. The play begins with trans actor Kate Bornstein and non-binary actor Ty Defoe—listed in the program as “Person in Charge 1” and “Person in Charge 2”, respectively—addressing the audience bedecked in brightly colored outfits (costumes by Suttirat Larlarb), pointing out that those comfortable with the music, a clear minority, have been granted a “moment of privilege”, the feeling of being the ones in charge. They then introduce the play as the curtain lifts to reveal a naturalistic, bougie and beige living room (set by Todd Rosenthal) set behind a giant wood frame with a little museum-like gold label at the center, simply engraved: “straight white men”.
Kate and Ty's “people in charge” return in scene transitions to physically manipulate the actors into their starting positions. These literal and figurative framing devices gently juxtapose with our present reality an imagined world where trans and non-binary people pull the strings. They may be heavy handed and feel too mapped on, a last minute addition as opposed to an integrated part of the storytelling, but they set a tone and make the point that even our characters, as straight white men, are manipulated into roles, defined by the strictures of labels when they, of all people, are thought to possess the most agency.
Jake and Drew—constantly grazing on snacks—horseplay in bouts of arrested development, regressing to their teenage (or younger) selves before pulling out a Monopoly board game repurposed by their deceased mother to be the game of “Privilege” (e.g. pass Go while white and pay $200). These straight white men—and their brother, Matt—were raised to know their privilege. The ease with which they discuss it belies any claim they might have to serving as exemplars of that category known as “straight white men”. And that is precisely what Ms. Lee seeks to shatter: our pre-conception of a monolith.
In three scenes, the brothers, and their father, engage in nostalgic storytelling, decorate their fake Christmas tree, chow down on delivery Chinese food, sing carols, drink eggnog, don matching pajamas, suffer hangovers, and dance (sometimes literally) around the elephant in the room: Matt’s ennui.
The most socially conscious and sensitive of the lot, Matt just wants to be “useful”, but Drew, Jake, and Ed have their own theories for his failure to live up to their, and society’s, expectations for what he, as a privileged, highly-educated, straight, white man, should do with his life. The fact that Matt does not fulfill those expectations, and cannot satisfactorily articulate why, drives each of the other men to reject him in the (hastily drawn) end of the play, as if to say: “you are not one of us” (“us” being straight white men).
Privilege does not mean a person hasn’t faced obstacles or struggled with identity, it just means that the color of that person’s skin, their gender, and their sexual orientation haven’t been those obstacles. But what if the label itself—straight white man—imposes a prison of expectations and limitations, just as it might for some other group? Matt’s is a predicament I have never seen dramatized before. It is bold and ambitious for Ms. Lee to attempt it, particularly in a culture and an environment where, as she says “compassion” and “curiosity” are out, and “condemnation and punishment” are in.
This brisk, entertaining, and deeply thought-provoking play is never strident or sentimental. Ms. Lee, aided by Ms. Shapiro and her outstanding ensemble of actors, keep the story deeply human in its telling, inviting empathy and a searching for understanding. It is not the raging jeremiad that many liberal theatregoers no doubt anticipate based upon the title, and that is a good thing. Ironic, yes, but it took an Asian-American female playwright to give voice to some straight white men, and make some history in the process. I look forward to many more plays of Ms. Lee’s to come.
Bottom Line: Young Jean Lee makes history as the first female Asian-American playwright with her quietly enveloping play “Straight White Men”; far from the raging jeremiad that many liberal theatregoers no doubt anticipate, this tightly directed and finely acted play is a smart, funny, and surprising look at questions of privilege and identity through the lens of America’s oldest and newest, and soon to be minority, group: straight white men.
“Straight White Men”
Second Stage Theater at the
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: July 23, 2018
Final Performance: September 9, 2018