Here’s what Young Jean Lee said about the Tony-winning Broadway play Clybourne Park in a recent New Yorker: it was “good, in terms of, you know, being a play, with a beginning and end and all.” The comment seemed so flip and dismissive (and kinda badass) that it probably set entirely unrealistic expectations for me in terms of Straight White Men, her new play at the Public (and the first Young Jean Lee play I’ve seen). Surely this show would be edgier, smarter, more uncomfortable, and all-around better than your typical middlebrow Broadway fare?
Well, I’m not so sure it is. But I’ll get to that.
First you need to know that it’s about three grown brothers and their widowed father spending Christmas together. These guys are jokey but socially conscious; caring but playfully aggressive with each other; smart but wary of intellectualism. The oldest, Matt (James Stanley), recently moved back in with his father Ed (Austin Pendleton! So lovely to see him!) and the central conflict of the play revolves around Matt’s brothers and father wondering why Matt has gotten so pathetic — i.e., living with dad, temping, lacking friends — despite his brilliance and caring nature. Is it the weight of expectations Matt faces as a privileged white guy? Is it his concern that he might be propagating the inherent unfairness in society just by succeeding? Is it crippling shyness?
If all that sounds heavy and pretentious and thinky: don’t worry. Straight White Men isn’t like that. In between the ruminations on what it means to be a white dude, there’s lots of joy — outlandish dancing, goofy singing, teasing galore. A good chunk of this play — much of the first two acts — is just fun (if a bit aimless) in its depiction of a family’s idiosyncrasies and Christmas traditions.
But then there’s that third act. This is the conflict-heavy portion of the show, and the point when it went a bit off the rails for me. It might be Mr. Stanley’s performance as Matt. To me he came off as a shy, sweet guy, and nothing like the negative cipher his brothers and father continually attack. What’s so awful about living with a parent and temping for awhile? (I’ve done both of those things in my adult life.) I kept thinking “Oh my gosh, leave the poor guy alone!” His father even refers to Matt’s behavior (which has been nothing but helpful throughout the show) as “repugnant” at one point. Perhaps if Mr. Stanley had put out more of a toxic persona I’d have understood where the others were coming from. But, as it was, I felt like this was a bit of a manufactured crisis.
Possibly because I couldn’t quite swallow the central conflict of the show; its ideas about what it’s like to be a straight white guy didn’t quite speak to me either. For example, the middle brother, Jake (Gary Wilmes) argues that when they succeed as white guys, it necessarily pushes others minorities and women out of the way. Maybe that’s true, but, well, middle class guys talking about white guilt doesn’t seem like such exciting drama to me.
Straight White Men is still in previews, and I think some of the kinks may get worked out in time. It’s certainly an interesting show, and I’m glad I saw it, but to be honest I liked Clybourne Park better.
My Grade: C+
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Ticket price: $30 (with Public membership)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No