Wednesday, August 1, 2018

57 (2018-2019): Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN (seen July 31, 2018)

"Boys Will Be Boys"

Nearly four years ago, on November 15, 2014, to be exact, I saw Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men when it premiered at Off Broadway’s Public Theater under the playwright’s direction. An entirely new production is now running on Broadway, under the bright direction of Anna D. Shapiro. 

Most of its cast is far better known than the Public’s (which did, however, feature New York theatre everyman Austin Pendleton, miscast as the father); their star power helps make it somewhat more entertaining but doesn’t greatly alter my modest reaction to the 2014 production. Thus the following is essentially what I wrote then except for a few insubstantial cuts and the use of red to mark new commentary. I’ve replaced the original actors' names and those of all the other contributors.

The eye-catching title of Young Jean Lee’s play, Straight White Men, is something of a red herring. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Some Straight White Men or Four Straight White Men. Lee’s title—assuming it relates only to Americans of that description—suggests something universal about a human subset that the very well-performed play fails fully to either exemplify or clarify. A multi-award winning Korean-born playwright of considerable stature who’s best known for her nonlinear experimental plays, which often examine issues of identity politics, Lee turns in this play—in a Second Stage production at the Helen Hayes—for the first time to a linear, naturalistic form.
In fact, however, the new version is not at all entirely realistic. For some reason, the ear-blasting music that attacks the audience on entering the theatre is now accompanied by a curtain of glaringly silvery strips. Comments have been written for the ushers and house management in case anyone is disturbed by the pounding rap music, which the script says is by female artists singing “sexually explicit lyrics.” It’s so loud, though, the singers could be microbes from Mars singing about interstellar travel for all anyone notices.

Moreover, curtain speeches have been given to two non-straight, non-cisgender male actors, here represented, in overtly offbeat costumes (by Suttirat Larlarb), by noted “non-binary” writer and performing artist Kate Bornstein, and Ty Defoe, an artist from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations whose self-description is an Ojibwe word meaning transcending gender. Their amusingly tongue-in-cheek remarks on the topic of identity are offered as preparation for understanding the plight of the “straight white men” who figure in the play that follows.

Bornstein and Defoe speak no other words but will reappear during the play, as noted below. It almost seems as if Lee, uncomfortable with having written what appears in most respects a naturalistic play, felt compelled to add an unnecessary metatheatrical opening so as to maintain her avant-garde creds.

The action unfolds over three acts (separated by blackouts), covering 90 intermissionless minutes, in the generic family room of a white, liberal Midwestern home (designed by Todd Rosenthal and brightly lit by Donald Holder) belonging to a retired engineer and widower named Ed (Stephen Payne, Superior Donuts). Ed’s brood of three sons, all in their forties, has gathered to celebrate the Christmas holidays. 
The oldest is Matt (Paul Schneider, Bright Star), highly educated and strongly committed to social justice (he once got a school theatre teacher fired for producing an all-white Oklahoma!), but adrift, unable to make use of his knowledge and abilities. He’s been living with his accommodating dad as a sort of substitute mom, handling various household chores. Matt holds down a temp position doing menial work (Xeroxing) with a socially responsible organization, but is burdened by a large student loan debt.

The visitors are the middle son, Jake (Josh Charles, The Antipodes), a banker, recently divorced, with kids of his own, and the youngest, Drew (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name), an unmarried college teacher (one four-hour class a week) who writes novels on political themes, and whose positive experience in therapy leads him to recommend it for Matt.

Aside from brief scenes where the dialogue engages with personal and social issues of white privilege, you’d never guess from their incessant adolescent hijinks, profanity (they especially love to throw the word “dick” around), fighting (staged by Thomas Schall), and crude horseplay that they were (apart from the rudderless Matt) accomplished professionals. It was hard enough to sit through this nonstop horseplay the first time—even the momentarily amusing, well-choreographed physical routines in which they engage—and it didn’t take long for it to set my patience on fire this time around. 

Ed, for his part, is a quietly bemused spectator to their childish behavior, not always getting it, but never raising his voice. He serves as the essentially neutral moderator when the play’s central issue comes into focus.

This happens when, as the family is eating Chinese take-out, Matt begins weeping (if only briefly); the play now begins to deepen as Drew reaches out to uncover the source of Matt’s unhappiness, drawing the others into the conversation and, if only sporadically, igniting something of a discussion drama.

Matt, for all his alleged brilliance (none of it ever demonstrated), can’t explain his sadness or his loser’s inability to use his gifts to move on in life. The causes of his unassertiveness are hard to grasp, and even he can’t articulate them, making his unanswered dilemma the play’s biggest question. One hint, albeit a discarded one, about Matt’s depression, a word he rejects, is that he feels guilty about his white privilege and is stepping back from more active use of his gifts so that some less privileged person can occupy his space. Of course, such a consideration, even if it were subconscious, wouldn’t prevent some other straight white man from doing whatever it is Matt might do.

To help give Matt the confidence he seems to lack, Ed stages a mock interview, as if hiring Matt for a job, but Matt handles it poorly, even after trying to emulate Jake’s performance when he demonstrates the proper way to do it. In the end, Ed’s forced to make a difficult, if belated decision, about his son.

The play has lots of vivid activity and offstage music (sound design is by M.L. Dogg) as the brothers roughhouse with each other; everyone dances wildly (movement is by Faye Driscoll) at one point to loudly thumping music (with Matt doing comically robotic movements), but this doesn’t make up for an essentially inert dramatic structure.

Straight White Men wants to confront issues of white privilege (Drew and Jake even play a version of Monopoly their late mother cleverly adapted into a game called Privilege), but, a few moments aside (some of it related to that board game), little of it goes very deep nor does it demonstrate much that might not also be associated with nonwhite, non-straight, non-male behavior, although the male component, despite the nearly total lack of misogynistic or patriarchal commentary in the Trumpian vein, is probably the most incisive. Generalizations are fun, but what do they really prove?

In 2014, I criticized Lee’s direction for including the annoying, if common, scene-shifting method of bringing “a handful of black-garbed stagehands, headsets and battery packs in place, onto a barely dimmed stage,” noting “it won’t do if you wish to sustain any sense of illusion.”  Now, however, I realize this approach was a deliberate choice, not a directorial misstep, because Anna D. Shapiro’s direction, following the revised script, goes it one better. 
Only two stagehands (a man and a woman) appear but they’re accompanied by Bornstein and Defoe, our identity-issue guides, who, like otherworldly presences, stand by silently as props are removed or rearranged. It seems to have little more purpose than give these otherwise unoccupied actors something to do while pointing to the deliberate theatricality of the shifts. It’s intrusive, distracting, and adds nothing to the play’s action or themes.

Stephen Payne (replacing the originally cast Tom Skerritt, and Dennis Arndt after him) is better casting for Ed than was Austin Pendleton, and he gradually grows on you; at first, though, his macho demeanor and raspy voice, resembling John Wayne on a diet of Camels, give him the aura of the local sheriff benignly overseeing his boisterous deputies. 

Josh Charles makes Jake a believable kid playing at being a grownup, and Armie Hammer does nicely at shading his leading man charisma with the hue of immaturity. Paul Schneider is fine as the enigmatic Matt, who, despite his own predilection for kindergarten behavior, can’t prevent us from seeing the man’s pain and confusion. 

Still, the sum total of their performances doesn’t enlighten this straight white man about his own condition. Perhaps, in Young Jean Lee’s eyes, that likely is itself part of the problem.    


Helen Hayes Theatre
240 W. 44th St., NYC
Through September 9