Review

'Straight White Men' gently wrestles with the meaning of privilege

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

To cut to the obvious, "Straight White Men" is a loaded title.

As someone who identifies with two of the three categories, I assumed that the play, by the intrepid Asian American theater artist Young Jean Lee, was going to be harshly satiric when I saw it last year at the Public Theater in New York.

A generation ago "dead white men" was a term of derision among those looking to reform the literary canon. "Straight White Men" seemed sure to entail a good deal more finger-pointing than a drama called "Black Lesbian Women" or "Transgender Asian Sex Workers." 

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The punishing volume of hip-hop music that's prescribed by the playwright for the pre-show hints that revenge is about to be exacted. But the play, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, turns out to have a disarming gentleness to it. Lee has more sympathy for her subject than scorn.

The play's four straight white men, a father getting on in years and his three grown sons, are portrayed without a trace of venom. Unafraid of appearing goofy, these guys are even in on the mockery of their tacky Christmas rituals.

The setting, a blandly functional middle-class family room (designed by David Evans Morris), looks like it was inspired by a 1990s TV sitcom. The leather seating and beige carpeting are made for recreation and comfort, not murder and mayhem. The cozy banality is both risible and reassuring.

This Young Jean Lee Theater Company production, directed by the author herself, contains a fair amount of rowdy horseplay. But for brothers who still enjoy playing a homemade version of Monopoly called Privilege — an invention of their mother's more in keeping with their archly held liberal values — there's no real threat of imminent violence.

Jake (Gary Wilmes) and Drew (Frank Boyd) have returned home for the holidays. Their brother Matt (Brian Slaten), once the bright star among them, has moved back in with his dad. This arrangement pleases Ed (Richard Riehle), who admits that he has never gotten used to living alone. (The assumption is that he's a widower.)

All of the brothers are unmarried. Jake is divorced, Drew has had trouble committing, and Matt is too shy and self-effacing to even go on a date.

Lee is content to closely observe the family dynamics without much concern for plot. Jake is the alpha male, a successful banker who dominates the room with his physical presence. Drew, a novelist, has been seeing a psychotherapist and would like everyone to be more emotionally forthcoming.

Matt, who dropped out of graduate school and has jettisoned all worldly ambitions, is the play's mystery. He sets off a family crisis when for no apparent reason he starts crying as all four men are seated on the couch eating Chinese food for Christmas Eve dinner.

Matt cannot explain his emotional outburst and wants everyone to ignore it, but a dude shedding tears is too disquieting to be swept under the rug.

Ed assumes Matt is feeling financially burdened by his student loans. Jake thinks his brother's extreme abnegation is rooted in his political convictions. Drew suspects severe depression. Their interpretations of Matt's condition reveal more about each of them than about the man in beige trying to vanish into the woodwork.

"Straight White Men" is a family drama that on the surface looks fairly standard, but the play transcends psychological realism. Lee is wrestling with the meaning of straight white male privilege through characters who are self-conscious beneficiaries of an identity increasingly out of favor in 21st century America yet still, like it or not, in control.

By focusing on enlightened progressives rather than on right-wing yahoos, the playwright avoids shooting fish in a barrel. She also gets to explore the variety of ways one can have one's cake and eat it too.

Matt is the only one in the family who opts out of this rigged system. His father offers him a check to pay off his student loans, but he won't accept money he hasn't earned, recognizing that this wealth, modest though it may be, is what undergirds their inherited advantage.

Wilmes and Boyd are the standouts in the cast. Their characters are well-matched antagonists. Every attempt by Boyd's Drew to dig into difficult emotional terrain with Matt is met with resistance by Wilmes' Jake, who protects the status quo by insisting that everything is normal.

Riehle's Ed is obliviously well-intentioned — he'd rather not see any problems, but if he must, he'd like them to be easily remedied. Slaten's Matt may be a tad too wan — this former golden boy should intrigue us more with his sacrificed potential. His hangdog demeanor is also a little too evocative of an antidepressant commercial — a problem for a play that doesn't want to reduce his condition to a single cause.

Lee's previous work has been so rambunctiously daring — "The Shipment" experiments friskily with minstrelsy, "We're Gonna Die" turns existential anguish into cabaret — that "Straight White Men" can seem tame by comparison. But there are sly moments of theatrical mischief.

The brothers have a compulsive need to let off steam. To free themselves from repression and to jettison guilt, they pantomime "the other" — dancing freakishly to hip-hop one minute, feigning gay sexual moves the next.

It's evidently not easy being a straight white man these days. "Straight White Men" takes in the hypocrisy with affectionate humor and leads with empathy.

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 24, 2015, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A gentle take on `Men' - Young Jean Lee's drama at the Kirk Douglas chooses sympathy over scorn. - THEATER REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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