Theater review by Adam Feldman
The title characters of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men may or may not be guilty, but they’ve definitely been framed. It is Christmas, and Ed (Stephen Payne), a widower and retired engineer, is hosting a reunion of his three fortysomething sons: Drew (Armie Hammer), an acclaimed novelist; Jake (Josh Charles), a divorced banker; and Matt (Paul Schneider), the eldest, a—well, no one seems sure. The play’s three scenes unfold in Ed’s family room, a comfort zone of board games, DVDs and stockings hung by the fireplace. This set, however, is contained within a large wooden frame with a plaque in front of it that says STRAIGHT WHITE MEN—the name of the play or, perhaps, of their exhibition at a museum of cultural history. And outside this frame is another device: a pair of fancifully costumed figures called the Persons in Charge (played by trans performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe), who talk to the audience at the start of the show and supervise the set changes.
This contextualization gives a touch of edge to a play that is otherwise quite square. Lee made her name with experimental provocations such as Lear and The Shipment, but here she offers a conventional issue play on themes of power and identity. Matt has moved back in with his father and is working as an office temp, which the other men consider a crisis—a betrayal of his own potential. All of them are well-meaning and intensely aware of their own privilege, but Matt’s stasis poses an existential challenge to their basic ethos of individual significance. Is he depressed? Is he weak? What must be wrong with him?
Lee offers little by way of plot: Most of the show finds the brothers reverting to the horseplay and bonding of their childhood. (They are at their most adorable when dipping a toe outside their straight-maleness—pouting, posing, dancing wildly to Icona Pop.) Anna D. Shapiro’s Broadway production feels broader than the one that Lee directed at the Public in 2014, and the performances are somewhat uneven: The cocky Charles and the cryptically recessive Schneider are excellent, whereas Payne still seems to be finding his footing (he inherited his role during previews). Hammer, in his stage debut, leans on sincerity a bit heavily but radiates charm, which goes a long way. Likability matters here; it helps keep the play’s potential didacticism in check. She may poke fun at these guys as they poke at each other, but Lee is not dismissive as she gently squeezes their universe into a foosball and rolls it toward an overwhelming question.
Helen Hayes Theater (Broadway). By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, Paul Schneider. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.