Society's most privileged group falls under the sharp eye of lauded Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee, but the result falls short of expectations
It’s quite an experience to enter the Fairfax Studio and to be welcomed by Khia’s 'My Neck, My Back' blaring obnoxiously loud through the speakers. Sexually-charged female (or male, for that matter) hip hop is an atypical bedfellow of theatre, but Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee demands it be played before the show starts. As the more genteel of audience members shuffled to their seats, the pulsing demands of cunnilingus and analingus made for some very visibly discomforted and irksome faces. Arts Centre Melbourne staff are expecting walk-outs from the more right-leaning attendees before the show even begins this season, tonight however they remained put.
Before introducing the show, a stage-hand perched above quietly reads a copy of the Thursday January 21, 2016 New York Post of which the cover juxtaposes an impending blizzard by mocking the Academy Awards stating that the city is about to become ‘Whiter than the Oscars’, while the back-page of the paper features a stark advert for the activist movement Black Lives Matter.
This kind of in-your-face (and ears) confrontation before the theoretical curtain is even drawn is the least you would expect from Lee. Her own not-for-profit theatre company which brandishes the mantra of “Destroy the audience” has produced some of the most thought-provoking and brazen works in recent years, from the buck-naked Untitled Feminist Work, the exposition of black identity politics in The Shipment and the rock-cabaret grappling of mortality in We’re Gonna Die.
Despite the no-doubt weighted title and setting, Straight White Men is one of Lee’s tamer philosophical works. Directed by Sarah Giles, the play takes place over a series of Christmas evenings at the widowed Ed’s (John Gaden) suburban home where his sons have come to visit. Jake (Luke Ryan) is a hot-shot banker, Drew (Hamish Michael) an award-winning writer while Matt (Gareth Reeves), the eldest, is suffering an existential crisis. Once believed to be the most-gifted of his brothers, he now relies on a series of temp jobs and lives with his father to alleviate his crippling student debts.
Giles’ staging, especially in the first hour, moves begrudgingly slow. Set solely in a tawdry lounge-room (designed by Eugyeene Teh) the brothers play a home-made alteration of Monopoly created by their late staunchly-feminist mother entitled ‘Privilege’, tease each other jocularly and drink to excess while ironically engaging in homo-erotic dancing to the bemusement of their father.
There are laughs (sometimes feeling like an extended brogressive episode of Frasier) and occasional moments of poignancy, but there’s little to challenge the audience on a stage that has been so psychologically prepared for a deconstruction of the patriarchy, with occasional explorations of liberalism fragmented by the brothers’ general crudity.
It’s not until the final half-hour, when Matt’s depression is thrust to the forefront that polarising character development and dialogue emerge. The three brothers provide a Venn diagram of power, privilege and vulnerability. While positioned by their mother to ensure that they’re well-aware of the head-start their chemical make-up has given them in life, two have chosen to ignore these ideologies to succeed, the other has crashed and burned by trying to adhere. Drew and Jake each have their own diagnosis for Matt’s woes; Ed is perplexed having fallen behind with the motifs and materialising constructs of contemporary society.
It’s the final scene that strikes hardest: when a father is left dumb-founded by a son unable to cast away his moral-locked shackles in amorphous loathing of societal constructs and self. The power is almost immediately lessened, however, with an untimely quip by Ed offering petty nothings as the stage lights dim.
While Michael’s cock-of-the-walk confidence provides the clear stand-out performance, the overall presentation, delivery and dissection of the bourgeoisie feels ultimately bland, if not undercooked. This production of Straight White Men is by no means a dull or trivial work; it just feels like it could be so much more.
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