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Straight White Men

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gary Wilmes, James Stanley, and Doug Simpson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Almost by definition, the person who has everything must also carry a heavy burden. What that burden is, however, and whether it's the same for everyone is an entirely different matter. In her new play Straight White Men, which just opened at The Public Theater, Young Jean Lee explores—and works to explode—the notion that members of the group of the title always have it easy. Or that they deserve everything they have. Or, uh, that they don't.

It's a bit diffuse, yes, but that's much of the point: No one, not even those generally perceived as being at the top of the societal ladder, is ever any one thing, and pretending they are is its own form of prejudice—and one most people would prefer to not talk about. It's difficult, after all, to pin down. But is that a good reason to not do it?

Not for Lee, who packs an astounding amount of commentary—and some flab—into 90 subdued minutes. This is right in line with her previous works, which have similarly tackled issues surrounding African-Americans (The Shipment), Asian-Americans (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), Christians (Church), and women (Untitled Feminist Show). So it was only a matter of time until she aimed her lens at the sector variously seen as responsible for most of the good in the modern world, the most devastating acts known to humankind, or, well, maybe something between the two extremes.

Austin Pendleton, Gary Wilmes, James Stanley, and Doug Simpson.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Devised and developed in part through interviews with actors of the target demographic, Straight White Men looks at how four progressive thinkers of exactly that type survive a holiday together. It's Christmas—none of them believes in Jesus, but no matter—and Ed (Austin Pendleton) is hosting for his three sons, Drew (Pete Simpson), Jake (Gary Wilmes), and Matt (James Stanley), the last of whom has been living with and caring for the increasingly elderly Ed while he struggles to get back on his feet. (The cheeky, suburban family room set is by David Evans Morris.)

Why he was ever off his feet is a running concern. He's temping for one of his pet causes now, but there's reason to believe he could just as easily be running the show. He's by any measure heavily educated (with a degree from Harvard and a Ph.D) and cultured (he's spent time on humanitarian missions in Ghana), and was raised with a keen eye to social consciousness; his mother, who has since passed on, redesigned a Monopoly game into a new "entertainment" titled Privilege that wouldn't let anyone in the family forget the advantages they had or the debt they owed to others.

But as we see how Matt's brothers are succeeding—Drew is a professor trying to ignite the fires of the next generation, Jake a banker who's internalized his sense of tolerance but is forced to play by the "rules" (he can't invite a non-white coworker to join him at external meetings, for example)—it becomes evident that Matt himself has not made peace with who and what he is. The most steeped in the realities he espouses, he's also the least able to deal with life: He silently breaks down at dinner, bombs a fake job interview designed to salve his wounds, and shoulders so much responsibility for everything that's wrong that he, in essence, becomes the kind of martyr he would probably otherwise decry.

Matt is being crushed as much by himself as the attitudes around him, and Lee is careful to channel those energies honestly but fairly. If the play accepts straight white male privilege as a given, that's about all it accepts: It neither excuses nor apologizes for Matt's situation any more than it does those of his brothers, who each have their own strengths and failings. Even Ed, who has the clearest understanding, isn't willing to put up with nonsense from anyone; he won't let the slightest accusation go by without explanation if it flies in the face of what he sees as their commonly held beliefs or common sense.

All this gives Straight White Men a firm, egalitarian feel that identifies these men, though given how little the characters differ on the basics, the conflict between them is not always gripping. Lee, who also directed, is best when here she stays on point; you learn more about the men from their reactions to their joint struggles (though they may not view them as such) than you do from their visible bonding over Christmas Eve pajamas, say, or a tension-breaking dance-off. Such moments may particularize their family connections, but don't really advance the premise enough to be worth the time.

The actors are all well cast if technically too old for their roles, with Wilmes bringing out the right amount of oil in Jake, leaving you wondering whether he's really as liberal as he professes, and Simpson's Drew is a refreshingly casual corrective to his straighter-backed kin. Pendleton's take, tired as well as engaging and encouraging, easily suggests a man who has yet to fully recover from raising three sons, but he has the necessary authority to slice through chatter to silence with a single cutting sentence. Stanley charms as the meandering Matt, but never quite sells the explanation we eventually get for his depressive behavior.

That explanation is a bit more complicated than realizing how trapped he is within his skin while injustice rages elsewhere, but that's at the core of it. What Matt doesn't see, but that Lee shows nonetheless, is that he's another kind of victim, if one who's been created through his own best intentions. Lee could go much further in showing the hows and the whys behind this outlook, but her play is compelling if only for being unafraid to say that if not all suffering is equal, it is, on some level, universally felt, even among those whose indifference may be at the root of it all.

Straight White Men
Through December 7
Running time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
The Public Theater Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
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