The work of playwright Young Jean Lee often metatheatrically traffics in identity politics and the politics of identity, from Asian-American (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven) to African-American (The Shipment) to evangelical-American (Church). In 2014’s Straight White Men—which Lee has revised for its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, which she has also directed—the author turns her subversive but sympathetic eye to the I.D. that’s too often assumed to be the universal in American society. And for this anthropological inquiry, she appropriately turns to the default mode of American theater, the living-room drama.
The action takes place over the week of Christmas, as three adult brothers join their widowed father for the holiday. Drew (Ryan Hallahan), the youngest, is a novelist and therapy enthusiast; Jake (Madison Dirks), the middle brother, is a newly divorced banker; Matt (Brian Slaten), the oldest, is a disillusioned academic and activist who’s seemingly squandering his potential by returning home to live with Dad (Alan Wilder) and working thankless temp jobs.
But then, the assumption that straight white men have inherent potential to squander is part of what Lee’s examining here. In each other’s presence, the grown siblings fall quickly back into childhood games and rituals; as past antics are revealed, we see that their articulate liberal wokeness hasn’t immunized them from playing “gay chicken” as kids, or from employing the privileges they’re all too aware they’ve been given.
Lee doesn’t entirely abandon her metatextual commentary: The cast also includes a pair of gender-nonconforming stagehands (played at opening by Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm, with Syd Germaine taking over for Jenetopulos later in the run) who give the top-of-show curtain speech that establishes the artificiality of the relative naturalism to come. Later, these characters reappear at scene changes, literally placing the men in their world. The device is a clever reminder that these straight white men don’t live in a vacuum, and their positions are never neutral.
Then again, the four men never quite forget that, either. To Jake and Drew and, eventually, their father, Matt’s inability to seize the command they think he deserves comes to look like a pathology; Drew believes his big brother is clinically depressed and must need couch time and medication, while Jake seems to project onto Matt his own guilt for accepting the benefits of systematic inequality.
Matt, for his part, insists he’s fine, despite breaking down in tears over Christmas Eve dinner. Rejecting anything he sees as handed to him unearned, he maintains to his disbelieving family members that he’s only trying to figure out “how to be useful.” Whether that’s a noble question, a crippling one or both is a problem Lee’s intriguing and entertaining play leaves unsolved.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Written and directed by Young Jean Lee. With Madison Dirks, Ryan Hallahan, Brian Slaten, Alan Wilder. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.