Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 23, 2018
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Suttirat Larlarb. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by M. L. Dogg. Choreography by Faye Driscoll. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Cast: Kate Bornstein, Josh Charles, Ty Defoe, Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, and Paul Schneider.
Directed with a confident hand by Anna D. Shapiro, who has fearlessly helmed such in-your-face works as August: Osage County and The Motherfucker with the Hat, this is a play that operates on two levels. On the surface, it is an often funny examination of familial relationships, gender roles, and white privilege within a warm and loving family consisting solely of straight white men: a widowed father and his three grown sons. Ah, but underneath it gently offers a perspective that may challenge your assumptions, especially if you are someone who favors analytical thinking and action over intuitiveness and reflection.
Straight White Men takes place during a Christmas holiday gathering at a family home somewhere in the Midwest. Matt (Paul Schneider), the eldest of the three brothers, is already there. He recently moved in with Dad (Stephen Payne), presumably in order to save up money to pay off a mountain of student loans. He is joined by Jake (Josh Charles), the middle son, who is a successful banker, and by the youngest, Drew (Armie Hammer), an equally successful writer and teacher.
Yet all is not well. In the middle of a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese take-out and beer, Matt suddenly starts to cry. Much of the rest of the play involves the others talking about Matt right in front of him as if he weren't there, taking turns analyzing what's going on with him, even as he denies there is a problem. Drew decides that Matt is clinically depressed and needs to see a therapist. Jake thinks that Matt has taken their social justice-oriented upbringing too much to heart and is simply being "noble" by living with Dad and taking on low-paying temp jobs so that "other people can have a chance." For his part, Dad decides he is being selfish by letting Matt live with him and can only think to offer him a check to pay off those student loans so he can move on with his life. Meanwhile, there is Matt, who can barely get a word in while the others are dissecting his apparent entrapment.
One of the privileges of white male privilege is the luxury of being able to pontificate about it without actually giving up any of the perks. That is, at least in part, what the play is about. But Young Jean Lee, the playwright, has more in mind here. For all their love, Drew, Jake, and Dad can only look at Matt through the lens of their own respective worldviews. Indeed, this is something she has been telling us from the beginning, when we first walk in on the wall of hyper dance club sound emerging from the speakers, and we meet our guides, Person In Charge 1 (Kate Bornstein) and Person In Charge 2 (Ty Defoe), neither of whom, we are told "is a straight white man." Their pre-show walk among and conversations with members of the audience, along with their initial onstage speeches, turn out to be quite significant. They also silently appear at several points during the performance, leaving us to puzzle over their purpose. When you figure it out, however, it is a powerful moment of enlightenment and a paradigm of what is meant by "show, don't tell."
As the brothers, Paul Schneider, Josh Charles, and Armie Hammer do an excellent job playing off one another with the combination of love and rivalry that marks pretty much all such sibling relationships. As Dad, Stephen Payne, an actor with a strong theatrical résumé, was still a little hesitant with some of his lines at the performance I attended, something that is entirely understandable since, as has been widely reported, he is the third person to take on the role after two other actors departed in recent weeks. But the overall performances, the direction, and the very smart and original writing make Straight White Men a sure-fire bet and a winner for Second Stage as it strives to find its place in its new Broadway house as a company that prides itself on promoting the works of American playwrights representing diverse, original and authentic voices.