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A CurtainUp Review
Straight White Men
By Michael Bracken

Ugh, excuses card. . . (Reading.) 'What I said wasn't sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center . . . — Jake, playing Privilege

You think everyone has an equal chance to succeed. You're in denial. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.— Drew, reading denial card while playing with Jake.
Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley, and Austin Pendleton (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
)
Leather furniture. That's the first thing you notice about David Evans Morris's set for Straight White Men, Young Jean Lee's latest at the Public Theater. While one piece is a streamlined recliner, the sofa and easy chair are solid and imposing. Testosterone spoken here. Your next observation might be the color scheme: off-white for the heavier pieces, brown for the recliner. You got it: white trumps brown.

As well it should, given the play's title and given its author, the darling daredevil of downtown drama. Lee, whose avant garde works include Untitled Feminist Show in which the cast is naked, has gone from au naturel to naturalism. In doing so she remains true to her experimental spirit.

Remarkably straightforward, bordering on conventional, Straight White Men is a tale of a widowed father whose three grown sons spend Christmas with him. One, down on his luck financially, has been living with Dad for a while.

The play begins on a comic, sardonic note with the two visiting brothers — Jake (Gary Wilmes) and Drew (Pete Simpson) — waiting for the return of their father, Ed (Austin Pendleton) and brother Matt (James Stanley) from the store. They pass the time wrestling (high marks to Faye Driscoll, who orchestrates the guys' frequent rough-housing expertly throughout); they also play Privilege, a Monopoly mutation invented by their mother with Excuses and Denial cards in lieu of Chance and Community Chest.

The high jinks continue when Ed and Matt arrive. The three siblings, with Ed's help, perform a chorus-line, mock Ku Klux Klan-extolling rendition of Oklahoma, written by Matt in high school to protest lily-white casting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

These boys were raised on a diet of social consciousness, although Matt is the only one who's done anything about it, volunteering for good causes and currently working at a community organization. Banker Jake and writer/teacher Drew talk the talk but put no effort into walking the walk.

It's a rare play that successfully transitions midstream from one genre to another. Yet Lee pulls off this sleight of hand with panache. What starts as a broad comedy becomes a study in existential angst and its repercussions without so much as a bump in the road.

At the very end of Act 1, in the middle of the family's Chinese takeout Christmas Eve dinner, Matt begins to cry. Ed and the boys are stunned and concerned. The rest of the play consists of their futile, divergent efforts to console, encourage, and, most of all, understand him. Not an easy task, since he doesn't seem to understand himself.

Lee's dialogue is genuine, as are her characters. You never doubt that this is a family. The three brothers share a common history. Yet each is his own distinct person without being reduced to a type. Stanley, Wilmes, and Simpson deliver multidimensional performances, even in the more cartoonish first act. As the pater familias, Pendleton sports a semi-idiotic grin most of the time, making him seem clueless when in fact his radar is functional if senescent. He's not named Ozzie, but, like the father in the current revival of Sticks and Bones, he could easily have been plucked from a 1960's sitcom.

With an author like Lee and a title like Straight White Men, you'd expect a hearty helping of razor sharp barbs. Not so. Lee sends up her Caucasian characters from a pointed perspective but tends to throw softballs. Her most forceful frontal attack comes through the lips of Jake, criticizing himself:
"My company's run almost entirely by white guys, and I do nothing about it. I make "ironically" racist jokes, I give straight guys shit about "acting gay," I talk about which of our interns I want to fuck. As much as I'd like to bring someone other than a white guy to a client meeting, the clients don't want it, so I'd never do it. Together with my ex-wife, I'm teaching our kids to be as white as possible, except for when their blackness makes them more appealing tokens.
In other words, Jake puts self-interest in front of his moral principles. Who hasn't done that? That doesn't make it right, but it's hard to know where to go from there. That's what makes the drama so affecting. Although Matt is the one who cries, it's actually the other three heterosexual Caucasian males who refuse to "man up." Afraid of what they can't comprehend, they walk away from it. For — perhaps because of —all their faults, they're human.

Straight White Men written and directed by Young Jean Lee
Director: Young Jean Lee Cast: Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt), and Gary Wilmes (Jake)
Set Design: Davis Evans Morris
Costume Design: Enver Chakartash
Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl
Sound Design: Jamie McElhinney
Movement: Faye Driscoll
Original Music and Remixes: Chris Giarmo
Dramaturgy: Mike Farry
Production Stage Manager: Stephanie Byrnes Harrell
Running Time: 90 minutes
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org
From 11/07/14; opening 11/17/14; closing 12/14/14
Reviewed by Michael Bracken based on November 13, 2014 performance
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