Straight White Men, a thought-provoking play by Young Jean Lee with a terrifically entertaining cast of Broadway newcomers including Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider as rowdy brothers, might to some theatergoers seem designed initially to mislead, and ultimately to befuddle. By its title alone, one could assume – incorrectly – that the play will be an acid satire. This impression is fortified by an unusual prologue.
More production photographs, plus video, at NewYorkTheater.me
During a pre-show featuring obnoxiously loud recorded music by female rappers with sexually explicit lyrics, two characters greet theatergoers in their seats, and ask them what they think of the music. If they reply that it’s too loud, they give them ear plugs. As the show begins, the two get up on the stage of the Hayes Theater, in front of a curtain made of cheap iridescent mylar strips more suitable for a disco. They introduce themselves, using their real names, Ty Dafoe and Kate Bornstein, and actual identities.
Dafoe: “I’m from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means ‘transcending gender’ in the Ojibwe language.”
Bornstein: “Me, I’m a Jew from the Jersey shore. And I’m what’s called ‘non-binary,’ which means ‘not man/not woman’ in the English language.”
Unnecessarily, and thus humorously, Bornstein says: “In case you were wondering, neither of us is a straight white man.”
The loud music, they imply, was deliberately intended to make at least some of the audience uncomfortable. “Kate and I are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” Dafoe says, his pointed comment eliciting laughter and applause.
Then, the tinselly curtain rises, revealing scenic designer Todd Rosenthal’s set, which is a family room in a middle class home, naturalistic except for the large wooden frame around it, and the label “Straight White Men.” Bornstein and Dafoe, who are credited in the program as Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, then lead Armie Hammer and Josh Charles onto the set. The people in charge retreat, and the play proper begins.
All of this – the loud music, the tinselly curtain, the People in Charge – have been added to the Second Stage Theater’s production at the Hayes. What follows, though, is more or less the same play that I saw at the Public Theater in 2014, a sympathetic and straightforward look at a family of four adult men, gathered together to celebrate Christmas. Each has adjusted to the world, and their privileged place in it, in different ways.
The father Ed (Stephen Payne), a retired engineer, followed the rules: “Get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids….Unlike you boys, your mother and I didn’t grow up being told we had options.” But it’s clear that both he and his now-deceased wife tried to raise their children to have a social conscience.
That explains the Privilege game that the visiting sons take out of the closet to play. Their mother had modified a Monopoly set. One son draws a card from the “Excuses” pile:
“`What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”
His brother draws from the “Denial” pile: “`I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist.’ Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.”
The three brothers learned different lessons from their upbringing.
Drew, the youngest son (Hammer), sees himself as working to change the world by being a teacher and the author of novels that “attack.. the crassness of American materialism.”
Jake, the middle son (Charles), expresses contempt for the “checkbook activism” of his father, and what he sees as the self-satisfied activities of his brother Drew. Jake, who fathered two biracial children, sounds like the most radical in the family, saying things like: “White guys like us shouldn’t be running things.” But he is now divorced from his black wife and, slyly, not trying at all to make a difference: He works as a banker, who only brings white colleagues to client meetings ‘because that’s how the clients want it.” ( “Hey, I’m not the only hypocrite in this family.” )
Big brother Matt (Paul Schneider) was the most committed to social justice of all the members of the family. He got the drama teacher fired for casting only white people in their high school production of Oklahoma!; as a protest, Matt rewrote the lyrics of the title song with multiple allusions to the KKK, which all three brothers perform for us from memory with gusto:
Ooooklahoma Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets,
With our pointy masks upon our heads!
But now Matt, despite his Ivy League degrees and deep competence, works as a temp and lives with his father. In what counts as the major development in a largely plot-less play, Matt breaks down in sobs. Matt won’t explain why he’s unhappy – or even if he’s unhappy — and Drew and Jake stake out opposing views on Matt’s situation (which could be labeled mansplaining if Matt weren’t male.)
Jake: “Guys like us are being told to get out of the way so that ‘other’ people can have a chance. Matt’s actually doing that! It’s noble!”
Drew: “If Matt is trying to fight the system by martyring himself, then he has serious issues.”
For Matt himself, his issue in life is: how to be useful. “I spent my whole life trying to make things better, and everything I did just made things worse!”
Matt doesn’t know the answer – he’s not sure there is an answer – and, to her credit, the playwright doesn’t provide any clear answers herself. In Straight White Men, Lee, a Korean immigrant known for her avant-garde downtown theater pieces – and the first Asian-American woman to write a Broadway show – has created her most accessible play. Her choice to add the framing device for Broadway of the Persons in Charge, and the literal frame around the stage, drives home a point that all of us know but don’t necessarily think about — that our perceptions depend on our frame of reference. By presenting a play that feels inconclusive, Lee seems to be encouraging each audience member to use our own frame of reference to judge the characters’ attitudes and their choices. I suspect many more theatergoers in 2018 will identify with Matt’s questioning (and his apparent despondent feelings) than did when the play was first presented in 2014.
It would be wrong, though, to assume that Straight White Men is one big downer. In truth, it is often funny, sometimes exhilarating. Lee has passed on the directing duties that she performed Off-Broadway to Anna D. Shapiro, Tony winner for the intense August: Osage County, but also the director on Broadway of such disparate comedies as The M-F with the Hat and Fish in the Dark. Shapiro (along with choreographer Faye Driscoll) works wonders in landing all the physical comedy of three grown men who still prank one another and roughhouse it the way they did as kids. (What other straight play releases a silent highlights video, featuring the actors’ moments of mischief-making with none of the dialogue?) The star wattage of the pranksters doesn’t hurt: Armie Hammer, who’s played the quintessential exemplars of privilege as both Winklevoss Twins in The Social Network, and as the dreamboat in Call Me By Your Name; Josh Charles, whom I still haven’t forgiven for dying in “The Good Wife.” Paul Schneider from Parks and Recreation. (Stephen Payne, the only Broadway veteran in the cast, gives the least dynamic performance, but it may improve with time; he was originally the understudy for the role of Ed, taking it over only recently after first Tom Skerritt “for personal reasons” then Denis Arndt “over artistic differences” left the show during the rehearsal period.)
You may feel as if you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Josh Charles and Armie Hammer do a sexy dance together, and Hammer moonwalking like Michael Jackson – or, rather, like a straight white male
Straight White Men is on stage at the Hayes Theater (240 W. 44th St., between 7th and 8th Aves., New York, NY, 10036) through September 9, 2018.
Straight White Men, written by Young Jean Lee, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb; lighting design by Donald Holder; sound design by M.L. Dogg; hair design by Jason Allen; makeup design by Jason Allen; featuring Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, Kate Bornstein, Josh Charles, Ty Defoe, Paul Schneider. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.