What the play lacks in surprise, the Wilbury treatment makes up for in excellent staging, acting, and a total commitment to physical theater.
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Vince Petronio. Staged by the Wilbury Theatre Group at the Trinity Square Theatre, 393 Broad Street, Providence, Rhode Island, through December 30.
By Mary Paula Hunter
Give the Wilbury Theatre Group a hand for being the most adventurous theatre company in Rhode Island. With the current production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, the troupe continues to bring topical Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway plays to Rhode Island audiences who have a taste for the offbeat.
Straight White Men (running in repertory with Di and Viv and Rose) turns out to be a highly stylized treatise on how straight white men supposedly behave. Trafficking in a variety of macho stereotypes, many culled from sitcoms and the buffoonery of a Farrelly Brothers movie, this well directed and superbly cast production manages to be highly diverting, despite its predicability.
In fact, what the script lacks in surprise the Wilbury treatment makes up for in excellent staging, acting, and a total commitment to physical theater. The actors dance, sing, and beat each other up so continually–at least in the first act–that I ignored how little I believed in the child-like antics of the three grown brothers. Performing masculinity at such an absurd level of intensity–choking was not out of bounds–offers little nuanced understanding of the white male culture, but it certainly creates a hyperbolic roller coaster of a ride. Lee pokes at big topics, Christianity and white men among others, but her satiric treatment never rises above the superficial.
For example, is anyone startled that male mockery masks repressed emotion? One brother begins to cry, but what empathy can there be for a caricature in a cartoon story? Throughout the wrestling and dancing, the brothers and father spout ideas about making it in the corporate world or the world of academia, but none of this angst is revelatory. Their dialogue adds little beyond the usual blues about the phoniness of the corporate world or the competitive ambition of writers.
Academia receives the harshest treatment here, perhaps because the playwright doesn’t seem to understand it very well. Schooling comes off as a vague evil, the proverbial straw man. It is never clear if our institutions of higher learning have failed white men or they have failed the Ivory Tower they built in the first place. Matt, the crying brother and hapless academic, is a completely muddled character. (He spent 10 years at Stanford’s business school. Really?) Why is he so desperately unhappy? Lee hints at some sort of lingering existential crisis, but refuses to dig into why the character embraces his misery so completely. By the time the otherwise sympathetic Dad kicks him out, we are grateful that Matt has been given the boot.
In contrast to Matt, we are given a weak, self-absorbed writer and a selfish-to-the-max banker. Josh Short, Wilbury’s founding Artistic Director, throws caution to the wind with his larger-than-life treatment of the uber-physical, hard-drinking financier, who could care less that he is part of the crass, uncaring world of bond trading. Or whatever it is he does to rip off the public for a profit; the play is short on details, but Short is beyond fun to watch. So too is the rising-writer, played by the talented Gunnar Manchester. He is the standout performer here; he can dance, sing, and brings impressive nuance to a character who is bogged down because he embraces a myth — that all men are basically Peter Pan at heart.
Thus this production will disappoint those who want some insight (beyond the conventional) into the minds and souls of straight white men. But the energetic cast fielded by the risk-taking Wilbury makes the proceedings entertaining for most of its two acts.
Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.