In a middle-class family room, with beige wall-to-wall carpeting and a big taupe sofa, a recently widowed man and his three adult sons gather to celebrate Christmas. That sounds like the setup for any number of domestic American dramas in which the characters’ resentments flare up and their defenses wear down, and then the audience is treated to a burst of long-suppressed anger that explains what has really irked them for so long.
Young Jean Lee’s wily Straight White Men, directed by Anna D. Shapiro and playing until recently at the Helen Hayes Theater in Manhattan, embraces that form and then sneakily thwarts its logic to offer us some critical insights about its titular subjects. Here, the straight white men in question are the Nortons: paterfamilias Ed (Stephen Payne), a retired engineer, and his three sons, Jake (Josh Charles), a recently divorced banker; Drew (Armie Hammer), a successful novelist; and Matt (Paul Schneider), a Harvard grad in his mid-40s, now living with his father and working as a temp for a local community organization.
Despite its conventional appearance and its perch on Broadway, where Lee was the first female Asian-American playwright to have a play produced, Straight White Men seems like an outgrowth of the experimental plays that its author has been presenting for the last 15 years. Her work has long examined racial and gender identities in wondrously weird and discomfiting ways. Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (2006) opened with a video of the playwright being slapped repeatedly in the face, and then gave way to parodies of Asian stereotypes before a well-off, self-absorbed, white hetero couple usurped the show and made it about their relationship. The Shipment (2009) presented a series of scenes—stand-up comedy, minstrelsy, song—that pushed demeaning language and images of African Americans to perilous edges, and then offered a blithe comedy of manners with a startling twist. Untitled Feminist Show (2011) unleashed a diverse cast of variously shaped naked women cavorting wordlessly on the stage.
Lee’s early work was primarily meta-theatrical, employing the genre’s long-exploited capacity to make a social metaphor of itself. By questioning its own representational strategies, meta-theatrical work can reveal the distorting lenses through which we see the world. The technique has been particularly useful for unpacking the social constructions of race and gender—especially when it comes to people of color and women—in works by Jackie Sibblies Drury, David Henry Hwang, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and Split Britches, to name just a few. Straight White Men, which had its New York premiere at the Public Theater in 2014 and has been revised for the current production, seeks to do this with the category named in the title, and to do so in a work of domestic realism—what Lee has called the straight white man of dramaturgical forms. With her usual merry impertinence, she looks to the least self-conscious of dramatic styles to consider the least self-conscious of American identities.
One challenge that Lee gives herself by choosing this dramatic form is that she cannot break the fourth wall: There are no meta-theatrics among the Nortons, even though she does come close. Before the play begins, pre-show music by the likes of Junglepussy and Yo Majesty blares at ear-splitting levels and a glinting silver shimmer-curtain covers the proscenium, signaling that we’re about to see something strange and showy. Two charming, colorfully costumed figures—Person in Charge 1 (Kate Bornstein) and Person in Charge 2 (Ty Defoe)—deliver a prologue in which they identify themselves as gender nonbinary and acknowledge the painfully high decibel level: “[I]t can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account.”
Like the Persons’ other remarks, their opening ones win easy laughs, which, at least to me, seemed like a gratuitous on-ramp for an audience that Lee could have trusted more. After all, she then goes on to frame the play again when the curtain rises, this time more effectively: A picture frame runs along the inside perimeter of the proscenium and a plaque at its base proclaims Straight White Men. This vitrine-like label invites us to regard the characters as specimens and to imagine that this species might be viewed with the superior, exoticizing regard of those who gazed upon people of color in freak shows not much more than a century ago. Such spectatorial violence has been the subject of important plays and performances, among them Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady (opening Off-Broadway in November after a summer run in Pittsfield, Massachusetts), and Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s The Couple in the Cage. Lee invites us to apply the same sort of scrutiny to a nice white family in a nice white play—but with a lot more compassion, as the American family drama demands. Her chosen form, which depends on empathy and identification, deliberately works against the brutality of the label. She asks us to observe without objectifying.
To his brothers, and in keeping with his dramatic forebears, Matt is “a loser.” Like Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (whose own mother calls him a “hopeless failure”) or Biff in Death of a Salesman (who hits a traumatic wall when he discovers his father’s adultery), Matt is a first-born son who has failed to fulfill his promise. But unlike his hamstrung progenitors, Matt hasn’t suffered any shock, setback, or parental malpractice. Nor is his dad tragically deluded or disappointed in himself, like James Tyrone or Willy Loman, those founding fathers of our national genre. Ed has simply followed the rules, he tells his kids—“get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids”—and has been happy with his lot. When Drew mentions that for his next book he might try something commercial, like a memoir about his family trauma, his father and siblings understand he’s making a joke. “Can you imagine Dad ever hitting anyone?” asks Jake. “Only with his car,” quips Matt.
And the sons’ late mother, we learn, was loving and present and socially conscious, raising the boys to appreciate their many advantages. (Absent from their man cave of a living room—the set is designed by Todd Rosenthal—her erstwhile presence still asserts itself in a smart, bright burst when Jake opens an upstage door to a bathroom, revealing a shock of floral wallpaper.) If the brothers quarreled, one of them recalls, their mom put on some music and had them dance out their tension. And sure enough, at the end of the second act, after Jake has insulted his father and everyone else has gone to bed angry, he cranks up Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care” and, one by one, the men return to the living room to join in. Part homage to experimental postmodernists the Wooster Group, whose shows often erupt with a raucous dance segment, and part sweet, story-advancing action, this scene is among the play’s most enjoyable, as Hammer, Charles, and Schneider fling themselves into somersaults, twerks, moonwalks, and waves with wild abandon (the choreographer is Faye Driscoll).
In a more blatant effort to curb her sons’ competitiveness and aggression, their mom also rejiggered the family Monopoly set into a game called “Privilege,” which Jake and Drew break out early in the play. Those who choose the iron or the thimble for their board piece receive an “undervalued domestic labor” bonus of some extra cash, while drawing a denial card like “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist” leads to penalties like “Get stopped by police for no reason and go directly to jail.” Ed reflects fondly on the usefulness of his late wife’s invention: “How else were you going to learn not to be assholes?”
But did it work? On this, Straight White Men is appropriately ambiguous. Most of the action involves the brothers’ bantering, razzing each other with anecdotes about embarrassing childhood antics, competing to one-up their various taunts, and rough-housing with maneuvers they might have learned from the Three Stooges; they’re juvenile, if amusing. They observe Christmas by donning new flannel pajamas and squishing together on the couch to eat Chinese take-out from the cartons, one of several funny, multilayered images of how their white world is blithely multicultural—here, infused by Asian food and Jewish custom.
At one point, Jake admits to promoting only white guys at his job because it’s what the clients want, while Drew changes girlfriends almost as often as he changes socks. And so, despite their mother’s efforts to raise sons who are woke, the rest of the world has taught them to cash in on their entitlement. Even so, they still aren’t the kind of aggrieved white guys who would tune in to Tucker Carlson or find affirmation in the whiny platitudes of Jordan Peterson. Lee has not written a parody.
During Christmas dinner, Matt inexplicably bursts into tears over his moo shu, and later, the others debate the cause. Ed surmises that his son has been ground down by student-loan debt and offers to pay it off; Drew insists that Matt is depressed and must see a therapist; Jake argues that Matt is the only one of the three brothers living up to their progressive upbringing by opting out of the rat race, in which he’s enjoyed a giant head start, in order to make room for the less privileged. To their fury, Matt rejects all these theories and insists that he’s fine, refusing the explanations that could make sense of his unhappiness. When a straight white man deliberately chooses to cook, clean, take care of his dad, and do mindless office tasks in an attempt, simply, to be of use—that is, when he elects to do the work typically performed by women, immigrants, and people of color—he does not receive any “undervalued domestic labor” bonus. If he can’t offer a plausible reason for this seeming act of self-abnegation, he is cast out as a race and gender traitor.
Like Matt, Lee’s play spurns an explanatory resolution. Here, for the first time in the 90-minute drama, she defies the conventions of domestic realism; in the end, both the character and the playwright boldly refuse to follow the rules, and the impact is devastating. Breaking free of the old boxed-in narrative is Matt’s only hope. And ours.