Young Jean Lee is the first Asian American to write a play that is premiering on Broadway. Ms. Lee challenges herself with work that makes her uncomfortable. It’s easy to see how Straight White Men could be a challenge for her. It is a deep yet humorous work and, in many ways, will have audience members making their own decisions about the plot. Ms. Lee’s talent makes this play work perfectly. Tony award winner Anne D. Shapiro does a wonderful job of producing this play.
There is certainly a lot to talk about before and after seeing this production.
“Before” you say? Entering the theater is defining hip-hop music turned up to a volume that will certainly strain your voice if you want your voice to be heard. The curtain is a flashy silver set of strings that remind me of what used to separate my bedroom from the rest of the world when I was a kid in the 60’s.
Prior to the start of the show we meet “Person in Charge 1” and “Person in Charge 2. Kate Bornstein & Ty Defoe introduce themselves to the audience.
PERSON IN CHARGE 1: Good evening ladies, gentlemen, and the rest of us. Welcome to Second Stage Theater. I’m Kate Bornstein.
PERSON IN CHARGE 2: And I’m Ty Defoe.
PERSON IN CHARGE 1: And in case you were wondering, neither of us is a straight white man.
PERSON IN CHARGE 2: I’m from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means “transcending gender” in the Ojibwe language.
PERSON IN CHARGE 1: Me, I’m a Jew from the Jersey shore. And I’m what’s called “non-binary,” which means “not man/not woman” in the English language.
PERSON IN CHARGE 2: Before we begin the show, we’d like to acknowledge that our pre-show music may have made some of you uncomfortable.
PERSON IN CHARGE 1: And normally when you pay money–especially Broadway money–you can expect to feel comfortable.
PERSON IN CHARGE 2 Kate and I are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account.
PERSON IN CHARGE 1 As for those of you who liked the music or at least you didn’t mind it, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience. We wanted to make sure you’d feel welcome in this theater.
PERSON IN CHARGE 2 Congratulations on your moment of privilege.
I bring this word-for-word segment because I assumed the show was going to deal with the various issues of gender-fluid relationships and dealing with a new age of freedom and tolerance.
As the show opened, we are peering into the living room of a Midwest, middle-class family literally framed with a wooden frame around the stage to set the stage up as a picture frame.
Jake (Josh Charles) the banker who has his comfy life, with his BMW and all the money he needs to survive in his “world.” He is divorcing his black wife and has two kids who he hopes grows up to be successful, as well. Charles plays his part perfectly as the brother who can still be a kid when he’s with his other two brothers. He’s physically talented and works a great sense of humor into this play; as if we were sitting on the couch with him. It is a great diversion from The Good Wife, where he was a regular cast member.
His younger sibling, Drew (Armie Hammer), is a perfect fit for Charles’ brother. They look alike and their childhood antics remind many of us how we used to ‘play’ with our siblings when we were younger, and, many of us when we are older still. Drew is the writing maven, working on a novel and teaching one class a week and he is using his abilities “in service to something bigger than myself.” Brother Jake doesn’t feel that Drew really has lived up to his potential. Is he projecting his own regrets?
The oldest brother, Matt (Paul Schneider) is the self-described ‘loser’ of the group, although he spent four years at Harvard and works at a temp job at a social services agency. He’s living at home with his father Ed (Stephen Payne), cooking, cleaning and taking care of his dad. On top of the disappointment he is to both his brothers and his father, he is over-his-head in debt from Harvard student loans. But he’s content with vacuuming the floors and looking after the house.
Ed just wants to spend Christmas eve and the holiday with his ‘boys’ even though they are in the 40’s, and drink beer, hang Christmas stockings over the fireplace, play music and reminisce of happy times, while dancing (in great form, I must say) around the ol’ living room.
Since it is a rarity that families can have THAT much fun and not be a bit dysfunctional, it is only a matter of time that when the Chinese food is delivered and all four of our ‘characters’ are stuffed together on one couch (‘cause that’s the tradition), that Matt begins to cry into his wonton soup.
Thus, the plot begins to thicken, or so we believe. Jake and Drew are more concerned with Matt than Matt is. They harp away at him until they begin to peel of the layers of Matt’s unhappiness.
It is here, at this very point, I began to think that the opening monologues will come to life and we will soon see that the sexual confusion Matt has will come to the surface. It’s important to note that during the change of the acts, Person 1 and Person 2 seems to be in the background leading the actors back to their stage position. They appear throughout the scene changes. (This is a 90-minute play with no intermission, therefore changing and moving objects are done by staff and actors alike).
At this point we find out that Matt should be (according to his family), successful and be fully integrated in to the world of capitalism and get the respect a Harvard grad deserves. After all, this is Harvard.
The brothers decide that a ‘mock’ interview will help Matt out of his depression. The mock interview gets him more depressed. He just can’t be what they all want him to be. And we wonder if that is what Ms. Lee intend. Did she want us to draw our own conclusions about Matt’s future or were we to believe he is content in his place in the world?
As the play draws to a close, dad decides he will give Matt the money he needs to pay off all his Harvard debt. He forces him to take the money while telling him not to worry that ‘he has the resources to do so.’ Matt doesn’t want to take dad’s money as he feels he can manage on his own. Matt was good with that choice, as many adult children might feel the guilt of taking the savings from their aging parents.
What I had a problem with was the very ending of the play. Many will interpret the ending of this play differently. So, here is where I won’t give the ending away because ‘interpretation’ is exactly what it is – how YOU see the story and what YOU would like to see as your understanding of closure. A good piece of work sends you home talking. In the world we live in today, maybe the answers are not what you would expect.
Second Stage’s mission is to bring to Broadway works of American playwrights that challenge the mind with diversity and authenticity. Straight White Men is a perfect example of ‘Mission Accomplished’.
Straight White Men opened at the Hayes Theater (formerly the Helen Hayes Theater 2nd Stage on Jul 23rd.
July 23 – 29 – Monday OPENING, Wednesday @2pm and 7pm, Thursday @7pm, Friday @8pm, Saturday @2pm and 8pm, Sunday @3pmJuly 30 – September 9 – Tuesday @7pm, Wednesday @2pm and 7pm, Thursday @7pm, Friday @8pm, Saturday @2pm and 8pm, Sunday @3pm
- Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
- Playwright: Young Jean Lee
This play is limited and scheduled to end September 9th.