In 2003, when she was not yet 30, Young Jean Lee founded a theater company for the purpose of producing her own work. Call it savvy, or call it hubris, but the move was bold, especially for an artist who is implicitly noncommercial and explicitly experimental. Her company’s goal, she wrote, is “to find ways to get past our audiences’ defenses against uncomfortable subjects … by keeping them disoriented and laughing.” Over the years, those uncomfortable subjects have typically involved sexuality, gender, race, and mortality; the means of disorientation have been likewise diverse. Lee’s Lear was an intervention that left King Lear himself out of the picture. (Before ditching academia, Lee was a Shakespeare scholar.) We’re Gonna Die was less a play than a montage of deadpan monologues and sing-along pop. Untitled Feminist Show, her most recent work in New York, was nearly mute and mostly nude.
But eleven years is a long time to balance a company on the crest of the next wave, and a reputation for disorientation can be hard to keep up. As you enter the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, where her latest “experiment” is playing, you may therefore find yourself asking whether Lee, now 40, has gone mainstream. The title alone — Straight White Men — makes you wonder what she’s up to, as does David Evans Morris’s Suburban Banal family-room set, complete with wall-to-wall carpet, a leatherette sofa, an exercise bike, and a dartboard. Deliberately overlit by Christopher Kuhl, it seems like a diorama in a museum of contemporary anthropology: the Lair of the Petite Bourgeoisie. Walking past it on the way to your seats, noticing the Christmas stockings hung by the chimney with care, I had the sinking feeling that instead of the hoped-for disorientation, I was in for one of those naturalistic home-for-the-holidays dramas in which mild family tensions arrive with the eggnog. And in a way, I was. But not to worry: The preshow music, specified in the script, is “loud hip-hop with nasty lyrics by female rappers” played fortissimo. “Ride dick like a pro, throw the pussy like I’m famous,” went one line. Consider me disoriented.
And then re-disoriented, because what follows, whiplash-fashion, is basically a Shavian play of ideas, and very timely ideas at that. The theme is quickly announced when Jake and Drew, the middle and youngest of a trio of now-40-ish brothers, discover here in their childhood home a board game they played as kids. Repurposed from a Monopoly set by their late mother, it’s called Privilege and was designed to teach them, as their father, Ed, puts it, “how not to be assholes.” According to the handwritten rules, the player who chooses the iron or thimble token gets an “undervalued domestic labor” bonus. Instead of Chance and Community Chest, the stacks of cards in the middle of the board represent Excuses and Denial. “You think everyone has an equal chance to succeed,” one Denial card reads. “Pay $200 in reparations.”
Jake and Drew view Privilege with nostalgic affection, as if it were Twister. But their older brother, Matt, is still deeply engaged in the lessons the game tried to teach. As a boy, he got a drama teacher fired for casting only white people in the school production of Oklahoma! He also started a training program for young revolutionaries whose “fight song” was a quote from Hegel: “The individual’s duty is to maintain the sovereignty of the state, at the risk and sacrifice of property and life.” This part of the play is quasi-naturalistic but also campy and hard to get a grasp on; perhaps Lee just doesn’t know how to embed satire in a traditional idea of character. Or perhaps she doesn’t mean to. For as the cave-boy antics and song parodies (“We know we belong to the Klan ... ”) give way to a real problem, the play becomes unexpectedly gripping.
That real problem, at least according to his brothers, is Matt. Whereas Jake and Drew have each found a “solution” to the conundrum of privilege, he has not. Jake, a successful big-city banker, solved it by ignoring it; he accepts himself as a “white dickhead” who makes “‘ironically’ racist jokes.” Drew, having been abused by his older brothers throughout his childhood — their calling him “Shit-Baby” was the least of it — chose a standard liberal solution: teaching, writing, getting help in therapy. Whether either choice represents a truly defensible response is the subject of much debate between them:
DREW: Jake, I know this may be a hard concept for you to grasp, but what makes me happy is using my abilities in service to something bigger than myself.
JAKE: Oh yeah? And who are you serving?
DREW: My students, my readers, my community ...
JAKE: Oh, come on, Drew, that’s just pursuing your own ambition. How is being another white guy with tenure making a difference?
DREW: You can be a white guy and make a difference.
JAKE : No, our success is the problem, not the solution.
The impossibility of settling that debate may be why Matt seems to have opted out of the entire mess, preferring to live a life of marginal damage but also marginal usefulness. Having moved back home with Ed, he works as a temp at local social-service organizations, mostly Xeroxing. Rather than risk making things worse for others by seeking work commensurate with his abilities, he is sinking under the weight of the world’s unfairness, not to mention his student loans.
It’s this response that Lee surprisingly dramatizes as problematic. In act three of the 90-minute play, the family puts Matt through an excruciating series of attempted re-education exercises that amount to a prosecution of the martyr. (The mock job interviews are hilarious and horrible.) Still, his failure remains a mystery, an act of self-negation his brothers cannot tolerate and that even his father eventually regards as immoral. By now we are caught in the claws of a profound question, and Lee isn’t about to let us go by answering it. Even Matt, who denies that his sadness and recusal are a choice, cannot say what they are. We are left to wonder whether wounds from his childhood are implicated — he bears heavily the guilt over abusing Drew — or whether the impossibility of improvement in the world can itself create a kind of psychopathology. Are the most sensitive among us, the ones most capable of engagement with others, at special risk for the infection of hopelessness?
I focus on the play’s questions and arguments because there isn’t much else to Straight White Men. True, it’s very well performed by Gary Wilmes (Jake), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt), and Austin Pendleton (Ed). But Lee has done no more character-shaping than is necessary to her discomfiting scheme. Nor, as the director, has she elected to waste resources on subtle detail; the play has a nearly naked quality. That’s only fitting. Her ideas are so keenly important, it’s like they ran out of a burning house in just their underwear.
Straight White Men is at the Public Theater through December 14.