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Theatre in Review: Straight White Men (Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theater)

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, and Paul Schneider. Photo: Joan Marcus

The poster for Straight White Men is an interesting case of truth in advertising; arguably, it gives away too much information about playwright Young Jean Lee's dramatic method. It features several of the principals depicted as figures on a Monopoly-style board, and it's a direct allusion to a game played by the members of the family who make up most of the cast of characters. (This is one of Lee's most amusing inventions; more about it in a minute.) It also constitutes an admission that Straight White Men is really an exercise in game theory, a proposition about how men from the class mentioned in the play's title will react under circumstances jiggered to reach a foreordained conclusion.

Before we get to the play itself, Lee indulges in a couple of diversions that underline her premise, although not in any organic way. Prior to the first scene, the auditorium is filled with hip-hop music, turned up to a level calculated to impede normal conversation. At showtime, the lights come up on the performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe. Bornstein, probably the better-known of the two, is a non-binary performance artist, and Defoe, a performer and writer who has worked with The Civilians and at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, says he is "from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means 'transcending gender' in the Ojibwe language." Discussing the preshow din, Defoe says, "Kate and I are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn't take your needs into account." Bornstein adds, "As for those of you who liked the music or at least you didn't mind it, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience. Wanted to make sure you'd feel welcome in the theatre." Defoe adds, "Congratulations on your moment of privilege."

It's an amusingly pointed bit, helped to no end by this pair of funny and affable performers. Then again, it raises a faint worry: If this relatively mild joke is as provocative as Straight White Men is going to get, what sort of evening are we in for? Even more curious is the fact that Bornstein and Defoe more or less disappear from the production, except when they usher in the actors at the beginning of each scene, rather like bunraku puppeteers. It seems peculiar to cast two performers who represent several marginalized minorities, only to leave them on the production's sidelines.

The evening's main event focuses on the widowed, retired Ed and his three adult sons: Jake, a high-powered businessman; Drew, a successful novelist; and Matt, who is currently living at home with his father. It's Christmas, and, as all four are unattached -- Jake is in the middle of a divorce -- they have come together to reenact old rituals. They are, on the face of it, classic Midwestern white liberals: Among other things, Jake's soon-to-be-ex is black and Drew's last novel was praised by the Times as a "radical attack on the crassness of American materialism" -- a line that shows Lee's deft hand at parodying the book review of record. All of this is apparently due to the influence of their late mother, a thoroughgoing progressive who reworked the family Monopoly board into a game called Privilege, in which players draw cards that, instead of telling them to pass Go, say, "'What I said wasn't sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.' Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center" or "'I don't have white privilege because it doesn't exist.' Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail."

Much of what follows feels delightfully accurate, thanks to a first-rate cast and director Anna D. Shapiro's long-proven skill at handling ensembles. Josh Charles' Jake is a frequent initiator of the men's adolescent horseplay but check out his stricken look when Ed announces that, with no kids on hand, he isn't going to haul out the Santa suit this year. (Later, he will turn up in it, defiantly unembarrassed.) Armie Hammer, a film actor here demonstrating his natural ease on stage, earns laughs as Drew, decorating the Christmas tree by virtually throwing strings of garland at it, and, nursing an epic hangover, falling headfirst into the nearest chair. Stephen Payne -- the third person cast in the role of Ed, following the departures of Tom Skerritt and Denis Arndt -- rides herd on his gang of overage adolescents with a natural warmth and authority, especially when he produces the set of patterned pajamas he expects everyone to wear. Of course, they give in, and Shapiro makes the most of the delectable sight of all four, pajama-clad and crowded uncomfortably on a too-small couch, eating Chinese food. (In another funny, edible moment, they attack a pie with almost indecent gusto.)

Shapiro is also good at planting tiny seeds of disturbance in the holiday revels, although Lee waits until nearly the end to harvest them. The celebration turns sour as the group's attention turns to Matt, who, in his relatives' jaundiced view, has become a slacker in his mid-forties. He has a BA from Harvard and spent ten years in graduate school at Stanford, yet he can't afford a place of his own, is lumbered by school loan payments, and currently toils as an office temp at a not-for-profit -- as Jake puts it, "making copies for the oppressed." Ed offers to pay off Matt's student debts, thereby freeing him to pursue his dreams, but Matt prefers to stay put, where, at least, he feels useful.

This sets off a furious debate, with Jake, who is disgusted with his own success at a firm where white male privilege reigns, stating that Matt is choosing the life of a martyr, and Drew insisting that psychotherapy will free Matt from low self-esteem. This is where Straight White Men goes awry: First, the brothers convince Matt to take part in a mock job interview with Ed -- a strategy that is more a playwright's indulgence than anything taken from real life. After this thoroughly false passage, the brothers are reduced to repeating themselves incessantly, with Drew in particular harping on the benefits of the couch. ("It's not selfish to focus on your own happiness!" he insists, thoroughly missing the point of Matt's state of mind.) It doesn't help that Matt's malaise is so generically rendered as to be meaningless: "I spent my whole life trying to make things better, and everything I did just made things worse!" he says, although no explanatory details are forthcoming. This general vagueness may be the reason that Paul Schneider struggles to give Matt a discernible profile.

This leads to a climax in which Ed, Drew, and Jake each make the same drastic decision about Matt, a scene that is meant to be wrenching but thoroughly fails to convince. Given what we've seen of these characters, it's plausible that the next morning everything will be back to normal. In any case, none of it feels momentous, because they aren't really characters. They're figures on a board rigged to show that, in the clutch, Ed and the others are incapable of surrendering the perks that come with being, well, you know.

Shapiro's production, which is, in every way, superior to the Public Theater staging of 2014, also features an ideally blandly rendered den by Todd Rosenthal, which contrasts nicely with the glittery rain curtain that is in place for the preshow; he also puts a frame, with an identifying plaque containing the show's title around the set, wittily identifying the characters as the museum specimens Lee intends them to be. Donald Holder's lighting is accurately naturalistic for most of the running time -- especially a lovely sunrise look -- with saturated washes for the scene changes and preshow. Suttirat Larlarb's costumes draw subtle distinctions among the characters, and the aforementioned pajamas are a riot; less clear is why she dresses Bornstein and Defoe like extras in an Ed Wood sci-fi epic. M. L. Dogg's sound design includes hip-hop, "O Holy Night," and effects from an Xbox game.

"There's only one rule I care about: Don't be mean," Bornstein tells the audience. Maybe that's what's wrong with Straight White Men -- when it gets down to the matters at hand, it offers its criticism without much bite. Or, looked at another way, the play is stranded between genres. Lee, perhaps for the first time, is working in a largely naturalistic mode, but she doesn't seem interested enough in the characters to give them the shading or contradictory qualities that would make them seem real: They exist only to prove a point -- and that they don't do strongly enough. -- David Barbour

(30 July 2018)

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