(l to r) Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in ‘Straight White Men.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
I am not a straight white man. But my father is, as well as my brother. If I were to adapt Young Jean Lee’s new play into my own vernacular, I suppose I could call it Almost All Straight White Men. And while we wouldn’t spend inordinate amounts of time re-enacting childhood bits and singsongs as Ms. Lee’s characters do, we’d likely find ourselves traversing similar territory by succumbing to the urge to tell one another how to live each others’ lives. Is this straight white man’s nature or human nature?
Ms. Lee, notably the first Asian-American female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway, doesn’t go for the jugular in her explorations of gender and racial disparity. Rather, it’s a calculated portrait as exemplified by Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, which encases the action within a proscenium-wide picture frame.
Straight White Men is not a violent play, though there’s plenty of cliché roughhousing among the three adult brothers, which include the eldest Matt (Paul Schneider), middle child Jake (Josh Charles) and youngest Drew (Armie Hammer). The Midwestern clan has descended upon their widowed father’s (Stephen Payne) home to spend Christmas together — 72 hours that dissolve into a needling of why Matt is now living with his dad and “making copies for the oppressed” at a clerical job for a nonprofit in lieu of capitalizing on his very expensive graduate degree.
It takes a significant portion of Straight White Men’s intermissionless 90 minutes before Matt’s minor breakdown occurs as the family shovels Chinese food into their mouths for Christmas Eve dinner. We’ve already endured how the sons’ mother re-titled Monopoly as “Privilege” and forced them to give money back every time they passed Go just for being white, or the re-enactment of Matt’s high school Oklahoma! protest (the teacher had only cast white students). The Run-DMC “Peter Piper” scene comes later though I wish it hadn’t come at all.
Mr. Schneider (whose real-life endeavors include admirable work with the World Lens Foundation and The Innocence Project) delivers a haunting, nuanced performance amid his co-stars’ more flourishing antics. But Ms. Lee smartly doesn’t provide an eleventh-hour monologue to tidy things up as his character slowly becomes a verbal punching bag for conflicting ideologies about privilege, duty, disparity, and depression. Instead, she imbues him with recollections of his mother’s mind-fuck gender beating (“She would say there’s nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence. She would tell me not to despair, and to keep trying to find my way.”) Or the ultimate white man no-no: “Why do I have to have a career?”
Whether Matt is clinically depressed or making room for those less fortunate to climb the prosperity ladder (nobody’s really sure — including the audience), one thing is clear: they all have the time and resources to wallow in their own conundrums. And that is privilege. More than 48 million people are food insecure in the United States, and you can bet that many of them are more worried about choosing to eat or keep the lights rather than engaging in existential arguments. Halfway around the world, Myanmar refugees are fleeing in an exodus that the United Nations describes as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” They don’t have the luxury of asking “why me?” when they are fighting for their lives.
Ms. Lee also engages two actors (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe), which she describes in the script as “ideally played by transgender or non-binary performers (preferably of color),” to deliver a prologue. The pair, dressed in silly futuristic costumes by Suttirat Larlarb, briefly acknowledges the challenges of living outside the straight white man norm and are then relegated to fleeting apparitions during subsequent scene changes.
“As foreign as they are to us, we’re gonna try to find some understanding for straight white men,” says Mr. Defoe, who identifies as Niizhi Manitouwug, which means “transcending gender” in the Ojibwe language. “That’s what we wish everyone would do for us.”
None of us are immune to the family dynamics that Ms. Lee unpacks. In an increasingly vitriol-fueled culture, we all might benefit from a good dose of empathy. Even for (gasp!) straight white men. “Listen my darlings, it’s hard enough not being mean to people you love,” says Ms. Bornstein. “It’s much harder not being mean to people you think you’ve got a good reason to hate.”
Straight White Men
The Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street, NYC
Through September 9
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and a recent Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Critics Institute fellowship recipient. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.