The set up is cute and surprisingly nuanced, even with the loudly annoying pre-show music blasting our ear drums from the moment we walk into the Helen Hayes Theatre. We have walked into this social research laboratory (of some sorty) to see Young Jean Lee’s whip smart and decidedly captivating new satirical play, Straight White Men. We are supposed to be uncomfortable we are told by our ‘Persons in Charge‘ for the evening, as it is all apart of the experimental installation laid out before us. The boisterous and aggressively engaging men that we are later introduced to are exactly what we would expect from the title, loving brothers in combat corralled by their sweet natured and politically correct father, with care in their heart and a mischievous wink in their eye, but the chaperones for the evening are anything but expected. As instructed by playwright Lee, (LCT3’s We’re Gonna Die), Kate Bornstein (La Mama’s On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us), a gender theorist who defines herself as non-binary, and Ty Defoe (Public Studio’s Masculinity Max), a two-spirit member of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations, dance and saunter out as shiny as the curtain is behind them. They ask for our forgiveness, commenting that our needs might not have been necessarily taken into account, and give reasons that revolve around the ideas and exploration of privilege and typical acceptability. They instruct and guide us towards the rules of the game we are about to play, and that game is called Privilege, more specifically: straight white male privilege and what that means to personal drive and success. So let the glittering curtain rise, and the experimental game begin.
Bornstein and Defoe take their individual playing pieces and physically guide them delicately into their starting positions. One chooses the iron playing piece named Jake, played heroically by the wonderfully agile Josh Charles (MTC’s The Receptionist), and the other chooses the metal thimble in the form of the handsome movie star, Armie Hammer (“Call Me by Your Name“), who charmingly plays the young Drew, or more commonly named by his two brothers, ‘Shit Baby’. Postured and placed on the board game of a family room, designed with an exacting eye for traditional suburban by Todd Rosenthal (Broadway’s This is Our Youth, St. Ann’s Nice Fish), with stereotypically perfect costumes by Suttirat Larlarb (Broadway’s Waitress), creatively solid lighting by Donald Holder (2ST’s Whorl Inside a Loop), and delicate sound design by M.I. Dogg (Public’s Here Lies Love), the cast as a whole enact the lives and loves of white men of privilege with integrity and exacting attitude. As directed with an easy playful style under the conceptual eye of Anna D. Shapiro (Broadway’s August: Osage County), the family satirical drama unfolds beautifully. The attachments are drawn, centered around the sweet natured and loving father, Ed, played sheepishly and adoringly by Stephen Payne (Broadway’s Of Mice and Men) who is happily hosting his two visiting sons for Christmas. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and the fake Christmas tree will arrive soon, but the desire for nostalgia is all around. Standing beside his father, sharing hosting duties is the now care-giving roommate slash eldest son, Matt, played with an intelligent eye to an internalized dilemma of some sort (or not) by Paul Schneider (Jane Campion’s “Bright Star“). All three brothers are whip smart and carry a strong connected history with each other, playfully ribbing and reminding each other of days long gone by. The two visiting sons are successful and bright in their own particular manner, but Matt was and is the prodigy, so they say. But somewhere along the road to fulfillment he has stalled, and doesn’t seem to want to partake in the game anymore, if he ever really did. The love is solid and clearly in focus between the three siblings. They play and fight, irritating one another in the most engaging and comical manner, dancing, punching, and wrestling one another to the ground, as only brothers can do. And the father watches and smiles with glee, as this signifies attachment to a high degree.
I’m not from a family of boys, like my fellow theatre-junkie is, so I never experienced this dynamic and these kinds of interactions, but from what I am told, this aggressive style with which they attack one another is spot on perfect. I have one older sister, and we never carried on like this, but it does feel authentic and organic. And in a touching way, it feels based on pure admiration and connectivity to one another. It’s heart warming, how these four actors are portraying familial attachment, especially when they mention the mother of these sons, a woman of strong moral opinion, especially regarding privilege, duty, and place. She is the actual creator of the game that the two visiting brothers play, and in some abstract from, the same one the two ‘Persons in Charge” are playing with these two young men.
The whole thing feels warm, wrapped in the nostalgia of Christmas and brotherly bonding, that is until Matt shows us all a tear-filled crack in the framed painting. And then, without too much warning, the board game is overturned, and each visiting brother starts to play the game a whole lot more aggressively, trying to win by figuring out Matt’s tears and motivation. Where does it fit into their personal outlook of being a straight white man among men? And what does it mean if Matt is giving up? With the father eventually joining in, the family tries to decode Matt’s stalled life as a symptom of something being wrong or something out of whack. Jake thinks its a noble integration and thesis culminating from a Political Science project and a personal privileged revolution, while Ed thinks it’s financially (de) motivated, but Drew thinks it falls into the Psychology department of advanced psychotherapeutic need and denial. Is Matt actually quitting the game of life and privilege, or just stepping back and off the board game? I’m not sure, nor do I think anyone in that framework is quite sure what’s going on in Matt’s head, and if it’s something to be challenged or fixed. It’s up to Matt to give his input, and he’s not talking.
Interestingly, it’s as if the two ‘Persons in Charge‘ are from a time and place somewhere in the future, gazing at an interactive art installation framed within a museum, one that is labeled Straight White Men. The two position their pieces and watch what the species will do with what is thrown at them, and how they will act on this level, or non-level playing field, depending on how you look at it. It’s a research paper from the future, destined to be debated by those silver-clad space-age theorists, marveling at the oddness of these silly primates and their lack of understanding and insight. We, as the audience, join in with these fantastical creatures, debating and discussing what this unique and exciting new play is trying to tell us. It’s a bit obtuse and vague in the final moments, not giving us much of a formal conclusion of the study, but somewhere within the margin of error, deep in the statistics found, the idea of privilege and what it means to be Straight White Men is still churning and figuring itself out. And I’m happy to have been an observer of the study and the playful Dance Nation moment that it gives us.
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