If your empathy for straight white men was strained by last week’s elections, go see Young Jean Lee’s 2014 play at The Studio Theatre. You’ll be privy to a rare, funny and poignant look under the fig leaf of male dominance, where men struggle uncomfortably with their privileged status and fear of failing.
Straight White Men brings three adult brothers together at their Midwestern childhood home for the Christmas holidays. Dad (Michael Winters), now a widower, still lives there with his oldest son, Matt. Drew (Avery Clark), the youngest, is a successful novelist. Jake (Bruch Reed) is a brash, self-confident executive. Matt (Michael Tisdale), a Harvard-educated Ph.D., has yet to figure out how to fulfill his potential. Meanwhile, he does temp work for a social justice organization and lives with Dad while he pays off his burdensome student loans.
Dad wants nothing more than a good old family holiday, complete with stockings and Christmas pajamas. The brothers – together again – revert to schoolboy antics as they revel in grossly hilarious memories of what they did to each other as kids.
But Mom has left her mark. These boys did not grow up as insensitive jerks. They find the Monopoly game she has cleverly remade into an alt-left version called Privilege, where each card reminds players of their high-born advantages and players are fined for their failure to do good. The boys proudly remember how Matt protested his high school’s all-white casting of Oklahoma by writing Klan-inspired lyrics to the title song, “O-K-K-K….” They remember every word, and sing it with conviction. Jake married a black woman and though they are now divorced, he is helping to raise two mixed-race kids. And Matt’s new book is hailed by a critic as “radical attack on the crassness of American materialism.”
Yet the setting itself is a bit crass and tired. Without Mom’s touch, they descend to a Walmart version of Christmas. Matt hauls in a fake tree. Dad stuffs the boys’ stockings with white athletic socks and playing cards. And the family orders take-out Chinese food, which they gobble up right from the cartons, around a coffee table.
As they do so, however, the tenor of the play undergoes an abrupt change. Matt bursts into tears for no apparent reason. The second half of this most interesting drama concerns the family’s reaction to Matt’s newly revealed but unexplained emotional state. Do they ignore it, or do they face his troubles head on and force him to do the same? Together, they counsel him on how to get ahead in life by holding a mock job interview where Matt self-immolates. They argue, cajole, and infuriate with their tough love. In so doing, the family effectively punctures the many myths we hold tight about virility and Alpha dominance.
For the most part, Lee’s superbly realized characters speak for themselves, but she introduces a clever twist on the drama by framing it with a fifth character called the Stagehand-in-Charge. Jeymee Semiti, a statuesque, confident black player, welcomes us to the show with the usual reminders to silence our cell phones. Then she sticks around, mostly off-stage but visible, overseeing the action. Between scenes, she is on-stage, rearranging props, and casting a few disapproving glances at the mess left by the males. Is she Mom? The playwright herself? Or is she a reminder that white males, while still highly privileged, live in a society that has become increasingly diverse?
Kenny Neal’s sound design – which features energetic, angry rap lyrics – ushers us into the show, underscoring the Stagehand’s hectoring presence.
Shana Cooper’s sure-footed direction coaxes pitch-perfect performances from her splendid cast. Her dynamic staging keeps our eyes moving across the single set, following the family’s testosterone-fueled horseplay and its vivid reactions to Matt’s anguish. Andrew Boyce’s set design will remind many of us of the sincere, bland, comfortable homes we knew back when. Pale colors, a well-worn sofa, a big ugly easy chair, a wall-full of family photos and childhood drawings, and fake-y Christmas decorations are achingly familiar components of ‘standard’ middle-class homes. Like the set itself, the image of America’s straight, entitled white males is a bit frayed and in need of a re-boot.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
David Siegel reviews ‘Straight White Men’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Spine: ‘Straight White Men’ by Young Jean Lee at The Studio Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver.