Straight White Men. Public Theater (see Off Broadway). Written and directed by Young Jean Lee. With Austin Pendleton, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, Gary Wilmes. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Straight White Men: In brief
Young Jean Lee, whose experimental work has delighted in metatheatrical mind games, offers what she says is a relatively straightforward American father-sons drama on themes of identity and privilege. Is tradition the new subversion? Her cast comprises Austin Pendleton, Pete Simpson, James Stanley and Gary Wilmes.
Straight White Men: Theater review by David Cote
After years of dabbling in identity-politics plays about Asian-Americans (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), African-Americans (The Shipment), Elizabethan-Americans (Lear) and butt-naked–Americans (Untitled Feminist Show), writer-director Young Jean Lee has found a rich, relatable subject we all care about: Straight White Men. A prime example of dramaturgical normcore—that is, experimental plays dressing up like fourth-wall family dramas—the new piece tickles your soft aesthetic underbelly, before easing in the knife of reality. The new project makes perfect aesthetic sense: If Lee wants to dissect the conscience of our society’s most visible and powerful population, what better mode than living-room realism, sadly, our default theatrical setting? It’s the content that Lee pours into that brittle stylistic shell—the sad farce of white privilege trying to erase itself—that makes her piece better than the straight plays she dryly mocks.
Four excellent actors play the male members of a liberal, Caucasian household bereft of a mother. They are retired engineer Ed (Austin Pendleton), douche-baggy banker Jake (Gary Wilmes), cynical novelist Drew (Pete Simpson) and politically disillusioned leftie Matt (James Stanley). Over Christmas, the fellas gather for Chinese takeout, mutual ribbing, stocking stuffing and soul un-stuffing. All this takes place in set designer David Evans Morris’s impeccably tacky rec room—shelves crammed with dog-eared paperbacks, board games and juvenilia from the boys’ youth, which they dredge up and wallow in, as regressing adults will.
Over the course of three scenes that span a weekend, sons and father do little else but stroll down memory lane, the boys teasing each other, and devolving into childish rituals and slap fights. When Matt breaks into sobs over dinner, the specter of depression or some hideous family secrets rears its head. I won’t spoil anything, since there’s little, narratively, to spoil. Straight White Men is not your typical dysfunctional-family gathering. When the guys drink too much, instead of predictable truth-telling about sexual abuse or long-repressed animosities, the play turns into a goofy dance party.
Lee’s M.O. is a meticulous, earnest reproduction of the title demo’s sociological traits (jokey awareness of privilege, all-around dickishness) but also of the sort of domestic dramas we consume far too much of on our institutional stages. However, if you expect deconstruction-prone Lee to break down this form through surreal flourishes or screwing with the frame, you may be surprised. Most shocking is the absence of shock.
She’s too good a writer for the drama not to work on its own terms, and as such, the result is both emotionally satisfying (including a final, brutal reckoning between Ed and Matt) and unflinching in its critique of white-driven social justice. In one of Jake’s most incisive and disturbing rants, the complacent but self-aware capitalist condemns the “others” whom Matt burns to help: “What are they sacrificing to make the world better? Nothing! They don’t want you. They don’t even want each other. They want me.” For his part, Matt’s nadir of self-worth comes out when he remembers his ultra-liberal mother—who may be dead, but still darkens his life: “She would say there’s nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence. She would tell me to not despair, and to keep trying to find my way.” We’re not just part of the problem; we are the problem.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Even toying with stage conventions, Young Jean Lee is radical.
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