The four main performers in Young Jean Lee’s provocative and hilarious play Straight White Men are precisely attuned, like the members of a string quartet, playing off each other to create something richer than the sum of their parts. They’re a true ensemble, though some are stars in their own rights: Josh Charles plays Jake, a divorced banker; Armie Hammer plays Drew, an acclaimed novelist; and Paul Schneider plays Matt, one-time valedictorian, Harvard man, and hardcore communist, now a temp living back at home, crushed by student-loan debt. All three are brothers, home for Christmas to see their widower father, Ed, played with gruff joviality by Stephen Payne.
Right off the bat, Todd Rosenthal’s set is a marvelously nondescript suburban home that looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1990s. Case in point: the chrome-face speakers atop the bookcases and the Raymour & Flanigan-style furniture that occupies the sunken living room, where the play—the first on Broadway by an Asian-American woman—is set.
Despite such realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality. The stage is literally framed with handsome wood, a brass plaque at its bottom etched with the name of the play. But the theater is also improbably decked out like a club: seats upholstered in crushed velvet, a stage curtain of shiny silver strands, and, before the show, contemporary dance music blasting from the sound system. Emcees Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, both gender-nonconformist performers, explain in preshow remarks that this is intentional, to make the typically square Broadway audience uncomfortable—the way that people such as Bornstein and Defoe are often made to feel in normative spaces.
The two actors also appear between scenes, supervising the stagehands as they shift props and furniture, then literally positioning the other actors before the action begins, giving them—the typically marginalized—literal power over the straight white men. But Bornstein and Defoe’s presence mostly seemed to serve as a reminder to the audience that, despite the play’s stars, not everyone fits into the category that gives the play its name, providing a little diversity to a work that otherwise would have none.
The cisgender male actors on stage spend most of Straight White Men’s first act establishing a deep rapport, making their characters seem like a close group of guys, reliving past embarrassments and pushing each other’s buttons as only those intimate to us can. But every outrage would be quickly followed by a smile—as if true love means never taking offense or intending to cause it. The three younger actors especially engage in a seemingly infinite series of choreographed antics and practiced call-and-response, as if they’ve really lived their whole lives together, establishing infinite routines.
Mere description will fail to illustrate just how funny these can be. A scene in which Schneider squawks like a bird and Charles hysterically screams while Hammer recoils with a hangover will likely reduce you to tears of laughter. And in another equally uproarious scene, after all the characters have just walked away from each other following a fight, Jake blasts Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and dances rigorously, joined one by one by his brothers and then father.
There are often deeper emotions at work throughout Straight White Men. What at first appears to be a hard-earned, easygoing bonhomie between the four main characters soon looks more like a mask, obscuring their hurt and sadness. While eating Chinese food with his family on Christmas Eve, Matt starts crying, and afterward no one but Drew wants to talk about the moment. When they all finally do, Matt becomes a canvas onto which the other characters project their own worries and desires, as they fight over him by proxy, seeking to identify his problem with their own.
To Jake, Matt’s seeming failures are principled, the noble act of a privileged white guy sinking to the bottom so that other, more marginalized people may rise. (The brothers are steeped in the language of social justice, a remnant of their dead mother, who, for example, left behind a rejiggered version of Monopoly called Privilege, in which white people lose money for passing Go.) To Drew, Matt is psychologically damaged and in need of therapy—to focus on and repair himself in order to find happiness. And to his father, Matt has given up and needs a kick in the pants to rediscover his ambition.
Matt, however, says he’s happy with his simple life and the simple pleasures it affords him, and this is the drama’s lingering provocation: Can a person—especially a straight white man, with all the privileges that affords—really be happy without striving for greatness and professional and romantic successes? Most of the characters need to recast Matt’s ambitionless satisfaction as an outrageous tragedy of unrealized potential.
The play presents four possible prisms through which to view the ambiguity of Matt’s situation, and many in the audience are likely to choose one, consciously or not, that fits in best with the preconceptions with which they’ve entered the theater. But the play’s rewards come from instead embracing uncertainty and admitting, as few of the characters will, that the secrets to living a fulfilling existence are impossible to name.
Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.