Young Jean Lee both does and doesn’t traffic in subtlety. Two earlier plays by the South Korean-born playwright, The Shipment and Untitled Feminist Show, presented extreme versions of black and feminist theater tropes, respectively, to defamiliarize the ways we process race and gender on stage. In both cases the results were controversial (the former has particularly angered many of her spectators), but never simple. Among Lee’s charges against “identity” plays is the false sympathies they promote for characters who’re different from some presumed norm. It was only a matter of time, then, before Lee wrote Straight White Men, a play that targets the one racial group that few in the liberal class are inclined to feel particularly bad for. The result is as surprising and challenging as her other work, though almost unrecognizable in its approach.
Straight White Men presents itself as a predictably satirical play about its titular demographic, starting with the play’s genre. The strict fourth-wall naturalism on display here is a first for Lee and suggests her intention to attack the majority with the majoritarian dramatic form. The plot is set over three days—Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after—and follows three adult, unmarried brothers who’ve come home to spend the holidays with their widowed dad. David Evans Morris’s set design, with leather couches and off-white carpeting facing a giant TV (invisible to us), is an eerily comfortable simulacrum of middle-class suburbia.
Far from Republican ignoramuses, the boys were raised by their late mother to be hyper-attentive to their own status as society’s norm-enjoying patriarchs. This knowingness allows some comically self-aware dialogue and stage business. In one scene, the boys play Privilege, their mother’s remaking of Monopoly. In another, they reminisce about shutting down a high school production of Oklahoma! for having an all-white cast.
The central “event” of the plot comes when the oldest brother, Matt (James Stanley), spontaneously cries during dinner (takeout Chinese, eaten in the living room). The rest of the story is spent trying to figure out why. Matt, a formerly fiery radical who now lives at home with Dad, working a temp job and buried under student debt, offers no explanation for his mood. Jake (Gary Wilmes), the middle child, a successful banker and divorcée, assumes his brother is suffering for the sins of whiteness, canceling himself out so as not to make the world worse. Drew (Pete Simpson), the youngest, a novelist and aspiring professor, assumes Matt is refusing to be happy, since wallowing in “egoistic white misery” is an embarrassing waste of anyone’s time. Ed (Austin Pendleton), the father, is generally bewildered at his son’s inability to make something of himself. For his part, Matt plays Bartleby, refusing anyone’s diagnosis while insisting on protecting his feelings.
The spectacle of Straight White Men is thus a group of straight, middle-class white men who’re aware of their own privileged status and yet, in attempting to rise above it, once again manage to make every conversation about themselves. Even Drew, who has the most pragmatic response to white guilt, becomes so righteous about his “self-actualization” that he readily lapses into the family narcissism. It’s Matt’s staunch silence, though, that makes the play more than an indictment of a self-absorbed and unproductive discourse of privilege among oppressors. Should Jake and Drew’s assessment of their brother be taken at face value, or is it they who dangerously misread a depression that has nothing to do with their own feelings of insufficiency? Is Straight White Men really about whiteness, in other words, or does the consistent projection of white guilt obscure other, more pressing dramas? That Lee doesn’t answer this question ranks the play among her most frustrating, and its provocation among the most subtle.
For their part, the ensemble, which combines veterans of the contemporary avant-garde (Simpson, Stanley) with commercial actors (Pendleton, Wilmes), makes an endearing family. The performers convey a touching intimacy while maintaining their characters’ individuality. As the loveably faded patriarch, Pendleton stands out with his soft voice and demeanor, bringing a gentle presence that underscores the sensitivity of the group. By contrast, Wilmes and Simpson wrestle, sometimes literally, to be the production’s energetic center. Except for one moment they remain firmly childlike in their most ludicrous antagonisms. This leaves Stanley, who, though the tallest of the four, manages to never draw attention to himself as the emotionally reclusive Matt. It’s left to each spectator to decide whether the play’s conscience rests in Matt’s silence or in his brothers’ noise. If the former, there may be more to these straight white men than their privilege would suggest.
Straight White Men runs through December 7 at the Public Theater.