theater review

Theater Review: Straight White Men Dares to Be Complicated

From Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, at the Hayes. Photo: Joan Marcus

A few days ago, the Times published an extensive profile of Young Jean Lee in anticipation of Second Stage’s revival of her 2014 play Straight White Men, which marks — in that equally exciting and depressing way of a lot of current milestones — the first play on Broadway by an Asian-American woman. The article digs into Lee’s reputation as a provocative experimental playwright (“the queen of unease” once wrote the Village Voice), a writer whose work riffs on all manner of stereotypes, putting its audiences in purposefully “unsafe spaces” where thorny issues of gender and race are dissected with a sense of merciless mischief. But hiding in there with the descriptions of some of the most brazen episodes in Lee’s plays, and with intentionally intimidating tidbits like the motto of Lee’s production company (“Destroy the Audience”), are these words, spoken by Lee in regard to the way our conversations about identity politics have taken on a flat, frightening rigidity: “It’s like you’re good or you’re evil,” says the playwright, “you’re a queer woman of color or you’re some version of entitled privileged person. I feel like compassion is very out right now. Curiosity is out. What’s in is condemnation and punishment. Now is not the moment for nuance; people do not want it.”

I felt something open up in my chest when I read those words, and perhaps, with them in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that Straight White Men is a more kindhearted play than the provocateur aura crackling around its author might lead you to expect. In fact, the 90-minute examination of the ingrained dynamics at work amongst an aging father and his three adult sons is, in large part, exactly those things Lee points to as so currently unfashionable: It’s nuanced, curious, and compassionate. That’s not to say it’s comfortable — Lee’s sense of mischief and her expert control of tension are still at play — but it is, in its bones, gentle. Those buying tickets hoping for a gleeful evisceration of straight white male privilege, a parodic fuck-you of a play, may be disappointed. Good. Lee is doing something much harder and much more humane.

Most of Straight White Men plays out in a deliberately conventional form: the three-act domestic, naturalistic drama, which Lee cheekily calls the “straight white man of theater forms” (she’s not wrong). But the play exists within several frames, starting with its title. No matter what happens in the realistic living room we’ll eventually stare into for an hour and a half — where, we’re informed, the characters will dutifully “stay in character and pretend not to see you” — those three little words, Straight White Men, put the whole event in an anthropological box. It’s almost like a visit to the zoo, where every big cat is a unique creature, perhaps thinking its own eccentric, nonreplicable thoughts, but the sign says “Bengal Tigers,” and so we view them as a group, a species whose shared behavior we observe through the glass. So it is with Lee’s characters, who even have their own sign: The second frame the play exists within is literal, weighty, and wooden. It surrounds Todd Rosenthal’s living room box set and bears a large plaque at the bottom, emblazoned with the play’s title. It’s another lens for our observer-ship: Now we’ve moved on from the zoo to an art gallery, and unlike at the zoo, the things we go to look at in a gallery are frozen in time, often archaic — one might even say, already dead.

That strikes me as enough external commentary to get me in an alert, inquisitive headspace, but there’s more. Straight White Men’s third frame is the presence of two performers who don’t share the description of the title. Lee calls for her play to be introduced and for its transitions to be orchestrated by a pair of “People in Charge,” here played by two nonbinary performance artists, the gender theorist and self-described “Jew from the Jersey shore” Kate Bornstein, and the activist and member of the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations, Ty Defoe. According to Lee, the play’s “pre-show music, curtain speech, and transitions … should create a sense that the show is under the control of people who are not straight white men.” This means that when you enter the theater, explicit rap by women vocalists is blaring over the sound system, a silver tinsel curtain obscures the set, and Bornstein and Defoe, decked out in fun variations on turquoise tie-dye by costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, are patrolling the aisles of the Helen Hayes, cheerfully shouting over the music to greet audience members. Later on, they’ll appear in the half-light between acts to maneuver the play’s straight white male characters into position like a bunch of life-size, un-wound-up dolls.

I admit to feeling divided about Lee’s insistence on all three frames (and it is Lee’s: Director Anna Shapiro and her designers are following the playwright’s explicit stage directions to the letter, from the tinsel curtain to the preshow music to the literal scenic frame). I wondered how my experience might have differed with one layer of commentary removed, or perhaps woven into the production’s fabric in a different way. What if I hadn’t read in the script that there should be a “sense” that the show was created by “people who are not straight white men,” but instead had looked down at the program to see a design and production team entirely made up of such people? But perhaps that’s not visually demonstrative enough (though it would in fact mark something massive), and perhaps Lee means to draw several lines underneath her most important point: that, while not a send-up or an act of censure, the play we’re about to see needs to be viewed at some distance, as a study of certain deep-rooted behaviors by a certain long-unexamined group of people. It needs — to quote Siddhartha Mukherjee’s superlative essay on Chekhov, compassion, and the numbing cruelty of our contemporary moment — our “clinical humanity.”

And once the frames open up, that’s what Lee demonstrates. After the tinsel curtain reveals the suburban living room, we meet affable, 70-something Ed (Stephen Payne) and his three grown-up sons, Matt (Paul Schneider), Jake (Josh Charles), and Drew (Armie Hammer), who are all, for various reasons, home for Christmas. Jake is recently divorced, Drew (in all ways the baby) is a writer without serious attachments, and Matt, the oldest, has moved home. He’s living quietly, working a temp job at a community-service organization and helping his dad around the house, and it’s this very quietness in Matt, this seeming lack of ambition, that eventually drives his brothers into paroxysms of anxiety.

“Matt, what the hell happened last night?” bursts out Drew in the play’s second act. “Why did you cry?” It’s the big question in the air: In Act 1, on Christmas Eve, Matt breaks down briefly while the men sit smooshed together on the sofa, wearing matching flannel PJs and eating Chinese food out of takeout cartons. Like everything Matt does, the crying jag is unobtrusive. “I’m fine,” he tells his brothers repeatedly afterwards, answering their questions about his well-being in as few words as possible. Jake and Drew, by contrast, more than make up for Matt’s reticence. They’re happy to speak over, around, about, and for him, piling up theories as to what’s eating their big brother and recruiting the easily led Ed—who, up till now, hasn’t questioned Matt’s choices and has found it “really wonderful” to have his son at home—in their crusade to Fix Matt’s Loser Life.

Because that’s what Matt is to Jake and Drew: a loser. It’s the most basic, damning of terms in the straight white male lexicon, and it takes a long time for Matt’s little brothers to say it aloud. First, they work themselves into a lather trying to explain their brother’s mysterious modesty. “Listen man, I think [he’s] clinically depressed,” insists Drew, and Hammer is hilariously on-point in his depiction of a smart, self-centered manboy who probably owns a PUNCH MORE NAZIS T-shirt and sincerely scans Tinder for hot, woke girls. Drew — who’s been to therapy himself and loudly credits it with changing “my whole fucking life” — is quick to diagnose his brother with emotional issues, while the more cynical Jake has a different view of the picture. “[Matt’s] penalizing himself,” Jake argues ever more heatedly, “Our success is a problem, not a solution! … Guys like us are being told to get out of the way so that ‘other’ people can have a chance. Matt’s actually doing that! It’s noble!”

Charles is doing sharp, funny-scary work as the surly middle brother, the alpha-male banker who’s got a black ex-wife and mixed-race children, and who’s entirely aware of the ways in which he holds up an unjust system every day. “Listen to me,” he snaps, “Every single VP at my company is white. No one else climbs the ladder, at all. There are so many talented women and people of color in the office that I’d love to bring to client meetings, but I only bring white guys because that’s how the clients want it.” Jake is the kind of guy who breaks the Nintendo controller when he loses and wrestles Drew into a painful titty-twister when he’s pissed at him. He’s smart and ruthless and he knows how to control a room — one of the play’s funniest (and creepiest) scenes involves him role-playing a mock job interview with Ed, in which he models for Matt how to be a successful straight white man: Take charge, take up space, take credit for everything, and don’t take no for an answer.

Despite his intelligence, Jake’s got a deep bully streak in him, and his reaction when he finally discovers that Matt isn’t acting out of a sense of woke self-abnegation is pure, brutal nastiness: “So you don’t even have your principles?” he snarls in disgust, “You’re a loser for no reason?” Drew is touchy-feelier, and in him, Lee creates an incisive sketch of the kind of oblivious cruelty reserved for people who pride themselves on their empathy. Perhaps worse than Jake’s disgust is Drew’s pitying, therapy-speak-riddled self-preservation: “I’m not gonna watch you destroy your life,” he whines to his brother, “I’ve been enabling you for too long…. Can’t you see what it’s doing to us to see you like this?”

Like what, though? It’s Matt’s question, and it’s the play’s too. Jake and Drew — and, eventually and shamefully, Ed too — ultimately aren’t reacting to a single teary episode. Their anxiety and argument and rationalizing bluster all boil down to something simpler and more disturbing than they’re able to define: their sheer horror at watching their brother behave unlike one of the species. What they mean when they lament Matt’s “waste of talent” is that it’s unthinkable, unnatural, for someone “like us” to find contentment simply in, as Matt puts it, “trying to be useful.” Helping in an office, keeping a house tidy, taking care of a parent — these things are small, unremarkable, the work of, in Drew’s explosive words, a “tragic, fucking … non-entity!” In other words, a woman. A person of color. Not a straight white man.

“Ha ha! Undervalued domestic labor bonus!” shouts Jake at the top of the play as he grabs a game piece from a doctored Monopoly box. He and Drew have unearthed “Privilege,” a homemade reworking of the real estate board game from their childhood. “One of your mother’s craftiest inventions,” says Ed fondly, “How else were you gonna learn not to be assholes?” Play with the iron or the thimble, and you get that coveted bonus. Pass Go while white and immediately pay $200.

This is Lee at her most playful, but she’s also craftily hiding the tragedy of her characters inside a joke. Because a joke, or at most an intellectual stance, is all “Privilege” was to Jake and Drew. And while Matt took it more seriously, it still didn’t save him from a younger life full of misguided, naively self-important save-the-world gestures. Lee’s message is clear: Regardless of upbringing, regardless of intelligence, certain kinds of assholery are hard to avoid and take ages to unlearn. No board game could actually teach Drew, Jake, and Ed to take domestic labor seriously, or to imagine a way of being in the world outside of their entrenched notions of ambition, merit, and success.

“Listen my darlings,” says Bornstein to all of us before we’ve met any of Lee’s straight white men, “There’s only one rule I care about: Don’t be mean … It’s hard enough not being mean to people you love. It’s much harder not being mean to people you think you’ve got a good reason to hate.” For all its clear-eyed examination of certain kinds of meanness — the most insidious of which look a lot like caring — Straight White Men isn’t a mean play, and that feels like one of the most important things about it right now. Its final notes aren’t of anger or righteous resentment, but rather of a kind of pondering, humane sadness. Schneider, who keeps his performance admirably understated throughout, hurts the heart when he tries to imagine the advice his mother would give him: “She would say,” he hesitates, “there’s nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence. She would tell me not to despair, and to keep trying to find my way” — in other words, like Lee herself, to keep trusting those two unfashionable lights in the darkness: curiosity and compassion.

Straight White Men is at the Helen Hayes Theater.

*A version of this article appears in the August 6, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Theater Review: Straight White Men Dares to Be Complicated