As a title of a play in 2018, Straight White Men, which opened on Broadway on Monday night, suggests at the very least satire—for what group in society is as privileged and also as scorned and analyzed as the SWM?
In their very own three-word descriptor they stand squarely opposed to the principles of evolving inclusion signaled by their opposites: LGBT, people of color, and women. They are perceived as (variously) abusers, impediments, dinosaurs, yet they still retain—by dint of those three characteristics—a social and cultural primacy.
Broadway, plus cultural hot button equals buzz, equals—with help of big-name actors—headlines. However, if you’re expecting Mamet-y, Oleanna-ish fireworks, Young Jean Lee’s clever if puzzling play, first performed in 2014, will wrong-foot you.
Lee is the first female Asian-American playwright on Broadway, and Straight White Men is no simple, dramatized condemnation of them or easy shooting of cultural fish in barrels.
Indeed, it is surprisingly affectionate about the SWM, even if the play is ultimately an examination of the privilege the liberal—and ostensibly culturally sensitive—characters on stage shrug off or not even consider, until they are forced to question what giving that privilege up means.
Then, kaboom. The guys aren’t happy.
The play’s set, by Todd Rosenthal, is surrounded by a huge gold picture frame, with at its bottom, in the manner of a painting title, “Straight White Men.”
Everything we see in that box, the action of Lee’s play directed with a brilliant, electric intimacy by Anna D. Shapiro, is a satirical animation of them. The play is a portrait, and just as with works of art, it is a play of obvious and not-so-obvious brushstrokes.
Before the cultural main event, there are laughs. Many laughs. That’s if you can still hear the actors after being blasted with profane female-sung rap music.
The script stipulates such music. It also stipulates the aperitif appearance of Person in Charge 1 (the rightly celebrated activist and performer Kate Bornstein) and Person in Charge 2 (Ty Defoe) to talk about their trans-ness, and to also playfully check in on us and our own sensitivities.
Sorry, they say, if the profane music made us uncomfortable. “Kate and I are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” says Defoe, highlighting the daily mechanics of trans exclusion.
“This theater we’re all sitting in together is built on the land of my people. So, welcome,” Defoe adds pithily.
The audience loudly applauds the two characters, who—along with the rap music—underscore the play’s liberal and subversive inclinations, way before we meet the four “straight white men” on stage: brothers Jake (Josh Charles), Drew (Armie Hammer), and Matt (Paul Schneider), and their dad, Ed (Stephen Payne).
It’s Christmas, and Jake, a banker played with sardonic snap and crackle by Charles, and Drew (Hammer, playing the woolly liberal writer and lecturer and annoying younger brother perfectly) are visiting Ed and Matt, who has recently moved in with his widowed father in his Middle American home.
Ed is a gravelly warm dad, a loving compadre to his sons; Matt is paying off student debts by working in an admin job at a progressive organization.
We watch Drew first hilariously bait Jake with an annoying song lyric. Then they wrestle, immediately reverting to their childhood selves when Drew, the youngest, was “Shit Baby,” so named for his eating of poop.
Beyond the picture frame Rosenthal’s set design is nothing flashy: This is a shabby middle class ordinary house (a nice touch is the still-pink downstairs bathroom; a nod to their absent mom).
And so you wait for evidence of “Straight White Men.” You wait for the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of the men, or a commentary on such things, but it doesn’t come.
The brothers were not just bought up to be “tolerant,” but actively embracing of difference, and acutely sensitive to cultural issues. They’re well-versed in the politics of inclusion and diversity. Lee’s writing is sharply funny, with the gags and one-liners flowing sitcom-speed thick and fast. (This excellent New York Times profile sketches Lee's life and inspirations.)
The play is intensely physical (Faye Driscoll oversees the choreography, Thomas Schall the fights); the brothers are a blur of movement, pokes, jabs, body-blocks and sometimes dance (just wait for the play’s fabulous main dance sequence). Jake, Drew, and Matt absolutely feel like brothers, reveling in that Christmas-specific condition of instant re-infantilization.
To play a board game, Drew pretends to puke up a dice, then poop one. That board game is called “Privilege,” invented by the boys’ mother, which the boys played when they were younger, and which included such traps for the ignorant as “‘What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay $50 to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”
“How else were you gonna learn not to be assholes?” Ed says of making his sons play the game.
The game is the first slightly not-real thing in the play: a little forced, but, OK, point made.
None of the straight white men on stage behave like the worst incarnations of straight white men. That’s Lee’s big trick on the audience. So why are we here, you wonder?
We see Matt’s radicalism, when the boys re-enact a demo he and his friends did in KKK hoods to protest an all-white casting of Oklahoma at high school; the brothers performing that demonstration here, complete with mock-goose-stepping. Again, we note, these men are so on the right side of the cultural fence.
There is no rancor, no ugliness, but rather a battery of witty observations of family life: Ed’s insistence they wear Christmas Eve pajamas, the fact no-one can remember the words of “O Tannenbaum” except the refrain itself. When Jake goes out for a run he wipes his underarms with a towel and wakes up Drew by placing that towel over his nose.
All of this domestic drama and comedy is beautifully written, acted, and directed. When Ed says he is thinking of buying a new car, Jake’s reply is: “Already? The Honda’s only 20 years old!”
Then Matt suddenly cries. Through the next two sections of the play, the question is why; between sections the trans “persons in charge” guide the straight white men to their positions.
The comedy still glints as Ed, Drew, and Jake mull what is going on with Matt. Drew is overly sympathetic, Hammer’s sensitivity as dopey-sweet as it is absurd (the audience laugh, and I’m not sure it’s Lee or Hammer’s tonal intention that they always should). Ed really doesn’t need or want that much taking care of from Matt; and Jake thinks everyone is being too touchy-feely.
Matt, meanwhile, blankly, inscrutably, gets on with chores.
The play loses itself slightly when its characters interrogate what they see as Matt’s withdrawal from the world—or the world they see as the one he was made to enter and master, as they have. Why is he working doing admin for the right-on organization? He’s better than that.
Suddenly, we leave the believable father-and-son crucible for the lingua franca of dinner party philosophizing.
“Our success is a problem, not a solution!” says Drew of being a straight white man.
For Jake, Matt is penalizing himself, to help those who are not straight, white, or male.
“You taught us to obsess over privilege!” Jake tells their father.
Drew falls asleep to his favorite childhood story of Silenus, who said: “The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you—is to die soon.”
If this doesn’t explain Matt’s self-imposed exile from whatever-it-is, the brothers continue to try to figure it out.
“Every single VP at my company is white…,” says Jake. “There are so many talented women and people of color in the office that I’d love to bring to client meetings, but I only bring white guys because that’s how the clients want it. I’m excluding black people at work, even though my kids are half-black!”
This just hovers as a fact, totally unexplored—and surely this would govern more of Jake’s response to all of this than it does.
The straight white men continue to talk about being straight white men. Lee’s strangest, most stubborn insistence is also Matt’s: that he doesn’t know, and she won't tell us, why he is how he is.
In his family's response to that—three separate permutations of disgust—we see the mechanics of white privilege and expectation Lee is referring to.
But that doesn’t match up to the dedicated and loyal affection between the brothers that we have seen preceding it, and it doesn’t reflect the brothers’ alleged cultural sensitivities either. It’s also a mystery why the brothers themselves make their own brother’s decision about white male privilege. Would they, really?
This could be Lee’s point, of course; that straight white men’s openness and stated acceptance of a diverse world is a figleaf; that underneath all the right words is still the burning expectation that they will be masters of whatever scrap of universe they occupy.
It just doesn’t quite flow plausibly with these particular characters, and the energy of the play dips with its late-breaking battery of earnestness.
However, Lee’s wider point about privilege is sharply made. Straight White Men proposes that this privilege does not have to be enacted in a viciously spoken word, or an active and overt act of discrimination or cultural mastery. It can simply be a powerful silent presumption, and in the aimless Matt Straight White Men satirically toys with what the rejection of that presumption may mean.
The fury of the characters comes when they see their straight white male privilege, and all that it brings, tossed aside. Matt’s rejection of what he has been born with is inconceivable to his family, and perhaps that incomprehension is the ultimate sign of straight white male privilege.
Straight White Men is at Second Stage Theater, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, until Sept. 9. Book here.