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.