by Michael Bracken
Two things you should know about avant-garde playwright Young Jean Lee, whose first conventional play, Straight White Men, just opened in a Broadway revival at the Helen Hayes Theater. Lee likes to make her audience uncomfortable, and she’s very interested in identity.
Straight White Men didn’t make me uncomfortable when it debuted at the Public Theater in 2014, and I guess I wasn’t alone. Lee tries to ratchet up the uneasiness for this production (as she did at Steppenwolf in Chicago), presented by 2nd Stage. The first Asian-American woman to have a play on Broadway, she’s added some bells and whistles at the fringes of the comedy-drama.
Most noteworthy is the blaring hip hop music that greets – make that accosts – you as you enter the theater. It’s an attack on the senses, and once the lights go down two People in Charge (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe) introduce themselves from the lip of the stage and acknowledge that the music might have been upsetting.
Kate and Ty are funny and personable. He says he transcends gender, and she’s “non-binary,” which she defines as not man/not woman. They take the edge off the edgy music, so why have the edgy music in the first place?
But if Lee fails to deliver in the discomfort department, she more than makes up for it with identity.
Straight White Men is an examination of the essence of four characters, all male, white, and straight, which Lee takes on with varying degrees of understanding and surprisingly little judgment. It’s Christmas, and Ed (Stephen Payne) is having his three sons home for the holidays. Matt (Paul Schneider), down on his luck financially, has been living with his father for a while. His brothers Jake (Josh Charles) and Drew (Armie Hammer) will be staying over.
Lee paints the landscape with skill and humor. We see the boys, who look like they’re all north of thirty, act like boys, rough housing, video gaming, and having water fights. (Choreographer Faye Driscoll keeps the high jinks lively and convincing.) They constantly put each other down but with affection, the way brothers do. Raised with an acute awareness of the privileges accorded to the Caucasian male, the boys find and briefly play the board game Privilege, a Monopoly spinoff designed by their mother.
For Christmas Eve dinner it’s Chinese takeout, and all dig in with a vengeance except Matt, who starts to cry. The three others are caught completely by surprise. Drew, a writer who’s in therapy himself, thinks Matt should see a therapist. Jake, a corporate type, thinks it’s nothing, and Ed thinks paying off Matt’s student loans will solve everything.
Matt keeps telling them he’s OK, and he seems to mean it. But no one listens.
Anna D. Shapiro’s direction seems effortless as the play navigates the seasonal joy that suddenly turns sour. The genuine familial ties that bind the quartet start to fray and continue to go south as the play careens to its unresolved ending.
Todd Rosenthal’s set is a study in suburbia, handsome but bland. Beige rocks. Suttirat Larlarb’s costumes, including Christmas pajamas, are always in character and hit the right socio-economic note.
As the paterfamilias, Payne uses his sonorous voice to spread good cheer, at least initially. Charles’s Jake, the most alpha of these males, subtly exudes cynicism. As Drew, Hammer is smooth and smug, but his concern for his brother is real. Schneider’s Matt often fades into the woodwork, a strange place for a central character but absolutely right for this family dynamic.
Extraneous ornamentation notwithstanding, Straight White Men is a powerful piece of theater that asks the same universal questions Matt is asking about his own identity. Three sons from the same environment have ingested the same core values in strikingly different ways. This production is like a Christmas present with too much wrapping, but once you open the box, you love what’s inside.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through Sunday, September 19th, at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th Street. www.2ST.com 90 minutes, no intermission.