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A CurtainUp Review
straight White Men
By Elyse Sommer
Actually this Christmas get-together predates Donald Trump's election. But it's no stretch to assume that if this were Christmas 2016, that all three would have preferred Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to have won. And, given that Young Jean Lee is the name beneath that Straight White Men title, it's a sure bet that what seems to be a conventional family drama is bound to take some some unexpected, edgy detours and that a play about white men doesn't mean those men have to be Archie Bunker types. Nor does it mean that the decidedly unconventional Ms Lee (Untitled Feminist Show, Pullman,WA, Lear, The Appeal) won't find a way to poke a satirical finger even at the kind of nice guys you wouldn't mind spending time with.
Ms Lee has indeed used the familiar family play format — in this case one that would fit George Bernard Shaw's "pleasant plays" or Eugene O'Neill's one happy family play Ah, Wilderness to point out the fault lines that can crash through the surface calm of a family bonded by love and honorable value systems. Thus, rather atypically for her, a big chunk of her 90-minute intermissionless play is a nostalgic entertainment in naturalistic mode.
We see the brothers once again indulging in the horseplay that was part of their teen-aged interactions, joining dad in reprising holiday rituals (wearing Christmas Eve pajamas, enjoying a Chinese take-out dinner). They also reenact some particularly unforgettable memories like very funny title song that was part of Matt's rewrite of Oklahoma as a protest to its all-white casting. While we do learn bits and pieces about the brothers lives since they left the comfort zone of their their youth, the focus is on a feel good entertainment.
But when Matt, who's not just visiting but back home helping dad keep the house running and working a local temp job, bursts into tears, the more experimental Lee takes over. She flips the heretofore "pleasant play" into a much less pleasant "discussion play." The fun and games and horsing around give way to a satirical take on the unexplored failure of all these men to have lived up to their potential for living really meaningful lives.
Sure, father Ed had a successful career as an engineer and long-lasting marriage, and middle and younger brothers Jake and Drew have successful careers, Jake as a banker and Drew as a novelist and teacher. But while being nurtured on a social consciousness diet has made Jake marry an African-American woman, the Christmas finds him newly divorced and Drew is in yet another short-term relationship. While that tearful outburst in the midst of the Chinese takeout feast, makes oldest brother Matt the only obviously at loose ends and unhappy character, he too is highly educated.
Under the auspices of 2nd Stage a new version of the play is now at their Hayes Theater on Broadway. It features four terrific new straight white guys, two of them (Josh Charles a seasoned stage actor and famously popular courtesy of TV's The Good Wife and Hollywood's Armie Hammer making his stage debut) with ticket selling credentials. To steer dad and the three siblings through the high energy business to the more philosophical concluding act, Anna Shapiro, the award winning director of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County is at the helm.
To give the play's Broadway production more of the avant-garde sensibility associated with her up to now downtown work — as well as to more clearly contextualize what she's trying to say, Young Jean Lee has added some bells and whistles that include two new characters to add a meta-theatrical twist.
If you arrive during the 20 minutes before the play starts, any conversation with your companion will be drowned out by the ear-blasting hip-hop music with indecipherable lyrics by a female band (unlikely to be recognized by most people). When the music finally stops those two additional characters, listed in the program as Person in Charge 1 and 2 and performed by gender transcending performance artists Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe deliver an amusing, explanatory prologue that explains the purpose of the less than soothing pre-show concert was intended to alert you to expect more discomforting and style shifting surprises.
These two new characters also explain why they are identified with that Person In Charge tag in the cast list. The Christmas reunion you'll follow as soon as that tinsel curtain goes up is a diorama they've arranged as a study of this segment of the white male population.
Using these characters to act as ringmasters and between scenes set change supervisors is a clever way to enable the audience to not just sit back but join the Persons in Charge as appraisers trying to understand characters like these. Director Shapiro handles the stylistic transitions skillfully and the actors individualize their characters and make them likeable, even though Lee doesn't let any off hook about failing to do anything about using their privileged status more effectively. Faye Driscoll, a holdover from the Public Theater production, does a wonderful job choreographing the highly physical interactions — especially a scene that has the three brothers set the stage on fire in a wild dance.
Despite this A-Class production, and Lee's clever mix of conventional pleasant play and meta-theatrical discussion play, Straight White Men somehow lacks a really knock-out satiric punch. And the points being made are more than vaguely familiar. So ultimately, the only really new-new thing about Straight White Men is that it's the first ever Broadway production by an Asian-American woman. It would be nice to see this as a sign that America will soon be a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds, colors and genders than it has been.
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straight White Men by Young Jean Lee Directed by Anna Shapiro.
Cast: Stephen Payne (Dad), Josh Charles (Jake), Armie Hammer (Drew), and Paul Schneider (Matt)
Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal
Costume design by Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting design by Donald Holder,
Sound design by M.L. Dogg
Choreography by Faye Driscoll
Fight Director: Thomas Schall. Dramaturg: Mike Farry
Hair and Makeup: Jason Allen
Vocal Coach: Gigi Buffington
Production Stage Manager: Jane Grey
Stage Manager: Brian Bogin
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermisson
Hayes Theater 44th Street
From 6/29/18; opening 7/23/18; closing 9/19/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at press preview
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