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Upon entering the theater to see the play by Young Jean Lee now receiving its Broadway premiere, we’re pummeled by deafening music that forces us to shout even to the person sitting next to us. But the excessive volume is not an accident committed by an overeager sound engineer. Rather, it has a definite purpose.
Said purpose is explained by “Person in Charge 1” and “Person in Charge 2,” who eventually appear onstage in front of the flashy tinseled curtain. Played by transgender performers Kate Bornstein and Ty DeFoe, respectively, they point out that if the music made us uncomfortable, well, it’s just a taste of what people who don’t fall into the play’s titular category experience all the time. Bornstein, who describes herself as a “Jew from the Jersey shore,” and Defoe, a Native-American, proceed to deliver a brief introduction to what is to follow, with the former adding that she has one strict rule in life: “Don’t be mean.”
That rule is followed in Straight White Men by the playwright herself, who is making history with the fact that this work is the first by an Asian-American woman ever to be produced on Broadway. Based on her previous acclaimed and award-winning off-Broadway work such as The Shipment and Lear, one might have expected the play to be a sharp, satirical examination of its titular subject. Instead, it reveals a compassion for its characters that makes it all the more affecting.
After the unconventional opening, the play is a naturalistic family comedy-drama. Well, at least “more or less,” as Person in Charge 1 advises. Set in the blandly appointed rec room of a modest house somewhere in the Midwest, it depicts the Christmas Eve reunion of widowed patriarch Ed (Stephen Payne) and his three grown sons.
Two of them enjoy successful careers: Jake (Josh Charles of The Good Wife) is a hotshot banker, recently divorced from an African-American woman with whom he has two children, while Drew (Armie Hammer, making an assured NYC theater debut) is a prominent professor and novelist. The outlier is Matt (Paul Schneider), once considered the most promising of the bunch. Despite having graduated from Harvard, he’s working a temp job at a social services agency, saddled with huge student-loan debts and living at home with his father.
Much of the play concerns the rambunctious verbal and physical interplay among the siblings. Jake, in particular, delights in teasingly tormenting his brothers via such methods as covering the sleeping Drew’s face with a towel soaked in underarm sweat. They also reminisce about old times, such as when the perpetually socially conscious Matt protested his high school’s all-white production of Oklahoma! by organizing a Nazi-themed demonstration. And they play “Privilege,” a board game adapted from Monopoly by their late mother for the purpose of schooling them on how not to grow up to be “assholes.”
The horseplay includes a raucous dance by the three brothers to Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care,” in which their moves range from lewd and obscene to choreographed elaborately enough for a music video.
Ed, meanwhile, infuses the proceedings with holiday spirit, providing matching colorful plaid pajamas for all four of them and secretly stuffing his sons’ Christmas stockings with candy canes and tube socks. The family sits down to a holiday dinner of takeout Chinese food and eggnog. It’s only when Matt begins weeping for no apparent reason that it becomes evident something is amiss. The incident leads to spirited debate among the quartet, with Matt insisting everything is fine, Jake defending Matt’s deviation from adhering to the status quo and Drew repeatedly bringing up the issue of Matt’s need for therapy to combat his “low self-esteem.”
Straight White Men is great fun for much of its running time, but the play falters when it attempts to explore more serious terrain. The playwright doesn’t manage to convey successfully what she’s trying to say about the expectations that inevitably accompany privilege. The work’s ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise, ultimately proves frustrating, especially in its unresolved conclusion. The expansion of the “Person in Charge” characters since the play’s 2014 off-Broadway premiere provides some amusing meta-theatrical moments but feels unnecessary and over-explanatory, as if Lee doesn’t trust us to understand the play’s themes without spoon-feeding them.
Nonetheless, the evening succeeds to a large degree thanks to the sharply funny comic writing, the impeccable direction by Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner for August: Osage County) and the superb performances of an ensemble who display tremendous chemistry together. If Payne, as the father, feels more tentative in his performance than the others, he has a very good excuse: He came late to the role, after the previously cast Tom Skerritt and Denis Arndt parted ways with the production in its early stages. Faye Driscoll’s choreography and Thomas Schall’s fight direction make invaluable contributions.
Despite its imperfections, this is the sort of thoughtful, challenging and original work too rarely seen on Broadway these days. Arriving shortly after Second Stage’s acclaimed production of Lobby Hero, it demonstrates that the company is very much on the right track.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York
Cast: Kate Bornstein, Josh Charles, Ty DeFoe, Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, Paul Schneider
Playwright: Young Jean Lee
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by Second Stage Theater
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