Straight White Men features plenty of conflict, but most of this wrangling comes in the form of tiresome, repetitive familial bickering.
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Staged by New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA, through September 30.
By Erik Nikander
The pre-show atmosphere for New Repertory Theatre’s production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men is one of deliberate provocation. Loud, sexually explicit rap music blasts throughout the auditorium — a self-conscious attack on the presumed sensitivity of the mostly white, mostly older audience at the Mosesian Center for the Arts. That isn’t an assumption on this critic’s part. Dev Blair, the boldly-dressed, effervescent ‘Person in Charge’ of the evening, says as much in an opening speech. This introduction sets a certain expectation; namely, that Straight White Men will be a provocative, refreshing, no-holds-barred exploration of identity and the societal privilege afforded to straight white males. If only that had been the case.
The show takes place entirely within the basement TV room of a suburban family. Matt (Shelley Bolman), a Harvard graduate who has worked for nonprofits for over a decade, has apparently suffered a crisis of confidence and moved back in with his father Ed (Ken Cheeseman). His two brothers, successful author/professor Drew (Michael Kaye) and banker Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.) are also back home for Christmas, indulging in old family traditions and boys-will-be-boys roughhousing. Out of the blue, over a dinner of Chinese takeout, Matt starts crying, leaving his brothers to wonder what may have caused the emotional outburst.
On a superficial level, Straight White Men resembles Eleanor Burgess’s Chill — both are four-character plays set in a basement rec room in which relatively privileged people are forced to reckon with the directions their lives have taken. But Chill, despite its flaws, at least boasts well-defined characters and a few scenes of genuine emotional resonance. In contrast, Straight White Men feels shapeless. The play is split into three large scenes, but there’s no real structure at work, no build-up or release of tension to speak of. To be sure, the script features plenty of conflict, but most of this wrangling comes in the form of tiresome, repetitive familial bickering. There’s no emotional weight to it, largely because these characters don’t feel like real people.
This lack of substance can’t be pinned on the cast, of whom I’ve seen three out of four do much better work in other New Rep productions (Bolman in Freud’s Last Session, Cheeseman in Blackberry Winter, Kaye in Good). The actors are trying, but there’s nothing for them to sink their thespian teeth into. Matt, in particular, feels like a blank slate, which is a problem considering his inner emotional turmoil is the dramatic fulcrum of the entire piece! The second and third scenes consist mostly of arguments among the other members of the family: What is really going on in Matt’s life. Does he need therapy? Are his crippling student loans shattering his confidence? Is he just a homebody who needs some time away from the world? By the end of the evening we still don’t know the answer. Perhaps this mystification was a deliberate choice on Lee’s part but, if so, it comes off as dramatically lazy and unfulfilling.
The playwright’s background in experimental theatre may explain some of the unusual tonal choices throughout the play, but the end result is more likely to confuse than to spark any serious social reflection. Elaine Vaan Hogue’s direction is hit-or-miss when it comes to handling the show’s abrupt emotional shifts. Matt’s breakdown at dinner, for instance, is quite striking. After a scene filled with obnoxious masculine posturing and lewd jokes, the abrupt shift to tender vulnerability makes us consider everything that’s come before in a new light. In a better thought-out play, this pivot would expose the inner selves of each member of the family in the scenes that follow, until their psyches are laid bare before us on the stage. But what character exploration we get throughout the rest of the play remains relatively shallow.
More common are odd, dissonant moments, like the end of the second scene, when the family breaks apart after squabbling over Matt’s emotional issues. Jake is sprawled out over the basement couch, utterly alone and fuming over Drew’s insistence that Matt needs therapy. He’s also dressed as Santa Claus. It’s a darkly comic image, which is immediately undermined once Jake gets up, puts on some thumping techno music, and grooves to it until the entire family comes downstairs to join him in an impromptu dance party. Equally baffling is the final exchange in the play, in which Ed’s mood turns on a dime; he starts berating Matt, despite having been gently supportive of him up to this point. It’s a surprising moment, but one that doesn’t mean much because it doesn’t feel believable or earned.
The lack of emotional substance in Straight White Men ends up undermining its satiric aims. After all, how can one criticize the hypocrisy of human behavior without understanding that behavior in the first place? The characters are both too accepting of their own privilege and too eager to criticize each other for the same qualities. This is not to say that there are no hypocritical straight white men, but Lee never forces her avatars of masculinity to grapple with their inner contradictions in ways that challenge convention. One element of the play that feels underdeveloped in this regard is the characters’ relationships with their deceased mother, a feminist who instilled within them an awareness of the world’s iniquities. Perhaps if this portion of the men’s inner lives were dramatized, the rest of the action might make more sense.
The world is changing. Long-held beliefs about racial and gender hierarchies are finally being critiqued. So it makes sense that theatergoers would crave a show that uses biting humor to reassess the established image of the all-powerful straight white male. But Straight White Men is just not up to the task. New Rep’s ambition to challenge audience expectations is admirable, but a play as emotionally remote as this one isn’t going to shake things up.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.