New York City Theater
"Straight White Men"
Helen Hayes Theatre
It’s not just the Black Rhino, Malayan Tiger or Orangutan that need protection. Rather, it’s the title characters in Young Jean Lee’s disturbing “Straight White Men,” which grafts a realistic comedy onto a symbolic take on endangered species. Do the three white sons and father who, having acted in ways that society has always rewarded, now face extinction?
Before the action proper, entering audiences are greeted (if that’s the word) with extremely loud, disorienting music. Wandering among the spectators are Person in Charge 1 (Kate Bornstein) and Person in Charge 2 (Ty Defoe). The first, a non-binary Jew, says, “Everything I really wanted to be in life could get me arrested or sent straight to hell.” The second, a transgender Native American, says, “This theater we’re all sitting in together is built on the land of my people.”
Thus, outsiders lead us into the still-life frame of the play where the three sons are gathered at their father’s house for a Christmas get-together. Childishly horsing around, eating Chinese takeout, playing a Monopoly game repositioned by their deceased mother as a lesson on the limits of Privilege, this favored crew is caged by their own limitations.
Or are they? Jake (Josh Charles) conforms to expectations in his public life. Though newly divorced from a black woman, he won’t invite women or minorities to a business meeting. Drew (Armie Hammer), a teacher and prize-winning novelist, believes all it takes for a satisfying life are sessions with a psychiatrist. Ed (Stephen Payne), the father, is a tradition-bound enabler, insisting on a Christmas tree, making sure his sons wear p.j.’s, as they always did on this night, and acting as the family peacemaker.
Then there’s Matt (Paul Schneider), a rebellious prodigy who protested the high school drama teacher’s casting only white people in “Oklahoma.” It’s Matt’s sudden crying jag that upends the family merriment and forms the play’s core of the good and bad of “trying to be useful.”
In its three intermissionless scenes, the work appears playful, eliciting roars from the audience. When both play and audience eventually settle down, we’re caught short, realizing we’ve spent nearly two hours with sad, infantilized though charming characters in a play that only pretends to be comedic.
Anna D. Shapiro directs as if this were a boulevard, domestic comedy. Yet, the distinctive characterizations these actors create suggest all is not well in this privileged world. Like figures in a painting, they keep us guessing who they really are and if they’re worth saving.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 10, 2018