So, what’s really up with straight white men? These days, many folks can’t move beyond associations of disproportionate privilege, female dysfunction, and outsize childishness to clearly assess this preternaturally charmed crew who land the top jobs, and win the high wages.
Enter playwright and director Young Jean Lee, New York City’s downtown theater darling known for viewing contemporary American culture through the distancing lens of her Korean heritage. Straight White Men, her deceptively funny, slyly feminist angle on the brood, was mounted off-Broadway in 2014 and is headed to Broadway this summer; making Lee the first Asian-American woman playwright to do so.
Straight White Men is now enjoying a run at PURE Theatre directed by Rodney Lee Rogers. Jokey and bloke-fueled, this simultaneously light and loaded work manages to both mildly scold and mother the lot, frequently rendering them more pitiable than predatory.
To do so, Lee drills down on one family of three grown men who are spending Christmas at the home of their widowed father. The four gather together, now unfettered of the social checks and emotional balance once provided by their mother. When raising them, Mom had cleverly kept their entitlement in perspective, employing boy-friendly tactics like changing the game of Monopoly to the game of Privilege, thus underscoring their own.
Now lounging about free range, the four are left to their own devices to follow their bliss. Pajama-clad, they crank up the dance beats, man the video controls, wolf down the Chinese takeout, chug the contents of the bar, and forever pummel each other with what are essentially noogies until the cows come home.
And they are perfectly content doing so until one brother, Matt, drops a major stink bomb into the man cave. Oh yeah, broheim starts crying. This momentary lapse of masculinity sends such seismic shivers through the holiday homecoming that the other men in the family can neither accept it — nor let it go.
To deal with this disastrous turn of events, each family member trains his special stuff on gloomy Matt. Ed, the father — portrayed with an unassuming amiability by Randy Neale — aims to throw money at the problem. Alpha-bro Jake (delivered with offhand machismo by the charismatic Paul Rolfes) takes a page from his wheeler-dealer day job to offer Matt a crash course in confidence. And Matt’s youngest brother, Drew, a peevishly endearing man-child as played by David Mandel, repeatedly bleats the merits of therapy.
As the Harvard-educated, ambition-killing Matt, the compelling R.W. Smith is the thus tortured moral core of the play, with his own heightened sense of social justice causing him to chafe and squirm under the expectations of undue privilege — and opt for contentment over advancement. Instead of continuing his long-cultivated crusade for social justice, Matt prefers not to. But his sitting it out is something that doesn’t sit well with his fellow straight white men.
All this takes place within a broader context provided by two other characters known as Person in Charge 1 (Shareef Elkady) and Person in Charge 2 (Miles Boinest), who physically work the controls of the men, maneuvering them from scene to scene, inserting gender-neutral pronouns, and telegraphing to the audience that these men are not the ones in charge after all.
To say the play hit home with me would be an understatement. And it gets a bit meta-weird here. My own Brooklyn apartment was quite probably a laboratory for the work. Bear with me now. When we left New York, we sublet our apartment to an actor, who was reported to host poker games gathering a gang of male theater makers to ante up around my prized lime-washed table.
When I was not slightly fretting over visions of cigar smoke and man funk infesting every crevice of my precious prewar pied-a-terre, I was bemused and a bit fascinated by the notion of this band of bros taking over the space. I could well imagine the chest-beating hijinks as this rogue’s gallery of avant-garde, Ivy League-educated American men revived this retro ritual.
Come to find out that none other than Young Jean Lee was equally intrigued by that very poker game. The same year she was working on a New York production of Straight White Men, she posted a photo on Facebook, tagging our tenant and his card-carrying buddies bellying up to my very table — and making reference to the “they” vs. “he” language of the play.
I share this because, first, how could I not? Second, and more significantly, it underscores how the specific and the personal lurks at the center of theater, breathing life into ideologies and power politics.
But it does not require a dotted line to the men who may have directly informed this curiously empathetic work, which is presented at PURE with perfectly calibrated tension between rooting for and reproving these hapless chaps. Lee creates a world that results in a curious feeling of discomfiting rue for those trapped in unmerited privilege. However fraught the inequities of our current power structure may be, Lee deftly and gently points out that straight white men are in a bit of a pickle themselves, and how tricky it may be for the entitled to just sit it out.