Monday, July 23, 2018

Straight White Men

It's weird to say this about a play that premiered only four years ago (at the Public), but the revival (and first Broadway production) of Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men feels outdated and a little forced. Some of the problem, at least when I saw it, lay with what I assume was a heap of backstage disruption. Initially--and presumably all through rehearsals--Ed, the father character, was played by Tom Skerritt, who departed the production due to what were described as personal reasons just as previews began. Denis Arndt stepped in, only to quit just as abruptly, citing "creative differences." By the time I saw it--and despite the fact that Arndt was still on the marquee and in the program--Stephen Payne had assumed the role. He did fine, especially considering the circumstances, but the show as a whole felt a little sluggish and unsure of itself. I'm sure it's gotten faster and punchier, but the rapid-fire energy that shows like these demand hadn't quite locked in yet.

The bigger problem, however, has to do with the play itself, especially in relation to how it's being sold to audiences. Straight White Men comes off as remarkably conventional, despite what seem like doth-protest-too-much attempts to market it as dark, edgy, and more challenging than it actually is. I was waiting--hoping, maybe--for something pulse-quickening, or at least something to take home and chew on for a few hours after the lights came up, but what I got was a domestic comedy that didn't build much, and that ended with a message that was driven home repeatedly from the start.

A play about straight white men is all well and good--lord knows, they're so very well and good that they just keep on getting produced, all the damn time, everywhere you can possibly look! Sure, putting such specimens under a microscope and observing them from a studied distance is hardly a ludicrous exercise: step one of fighting the patriarchy, after all, is acknowledging that it's not a glorious, universal ideal--just a dumb old social construct that's as bound up with behaviors, codes, expectations and mores as any other, even if it does just happen to rule the universe. Lee's play--which in this production literally frames its straight, white, male characters behind a gigantic, stage-wide picture frame that labels them as such--points out how deeply social constructs are ingrained, even among men who have been schooled about their own enormous cultural advantages.

But...still. The gist of Straight White Men feels obvious from the outset: Three grown, white, educated, affluent brothers and their white, educated, affluent dad get together for Christmas (mom, who encouraged her boys to push against white male supremacy, has died). The brothers are reasonably successful, with the exception of the oldest and most well-educated. Despite his Harvard degree and graduate school credentials, Matt has moved back in with his dad, and now spends his time running errands, cleaning the house, and working a series of menial temp jobs. Spoiler alert: woke as they like to think they are, the rest of the men don't think this is the kind of stuff Matt is supposed to be fulfilled by, and they are very upset and bothered by his choices.

This central, driving issue doesn't so much build as get inserted between all manner of activities men tend to engage in. Through three mini-acts, the brothers, sometimes along with dad, play video games, roughhouse, dust off childhood nicknames, get drunk, reminisce, eat Chinese takeout, bond, bicker, dance, put on matching pajamas, and judge each other's choices. At a scant 90 minutes, the piece still feels too long and repetitive for what it says and how it says it. There is an attempt at further distancing the main characters by having them introduced and occasionally manipulated by two unnamed characters, one non-binary and one gender fluid (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, respectively; the charming T.L. Thompson was in for Bornstein when I saw the show). These two characters address the audience for a few minutes at the very start of the production, but the added framing device feels less illuminating than it does inadvertently insulting: they are way more dynamic and engaging than the characters who get most of the stage time, and yet for all their energy, wit, and dynamism, they are almost immediately--and ultimately, just so that the audience can watch a standard-issue domestic comedy about a stage chock full of dudes.

I can imagine that Straight White Men seemed comparatively fresh in 2014, before all the shit that's gone down in the four years since. Still, it hardly struck a chord in the summer of 2018. At this point, I suppose I'd rather have the chance to learn more about the two unnamed characters that appear for about five minutes at the top than I would to spend another modicum of energy--and certainly another ninety minutes--on people who dominate daily discourse, control basically everything, and are currently driving our nation into the ground. Sue me if I'm missing something here.

When not breathlessly insisting that Straight White Men is super innovative, edgy, and dark, its marketing has been celebrating the fact that it's the very first play by an Asian-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Wow, OMG, how progressive! Way to go! Give yourselves a slap on the back, forward thinkers! Seriously, now, it's great that Broadway is trying to diversify--it's 2018, for fuck's sake--but could the choice of play in this particular case be any more disappointing? Lee has become known in less intensely commercial centers as a highly innovative, challenging, genre-shifting and disruptive playwright. I'd have loved to see something on Broadway that backs this reputation up, but I suppose that's too much to ask.

Please hear me on this: I most certainly don't begrudge Lee herself. A gig's a gig, and Broadway is as big and shiny and wonderful a gig as any playwright is ever going to get in this country. This being said, I hope mightily that Lee gets to show up there again, next time with a play that disrupts, challenges, upsets and complicates in at least a few of the ways she's become known for. I hope as much for a lot of playwrights from a lot of backgrounds, who continue to get little or no representation in the commercial realm. For now, though, there's something pathetic about a production so eager to celebrate its landmark status and its edgy, challenging not being remotely edgy or challenging or dark at all, but instead by furthering the careers of some already well-established white dudes and focusing entirely on what Broadway has always embraced, while insisting that this time, it's totally different. It's not.

If you want to take your smitten-with-Armie-Hammer tween to see Straight White Men, by all means, go for it; they'll likely want to wait eagerly at the stage door after the show to see if he'll emerge, pose for selfies, and accept all the peaches fans seem to be presenting him with. But I assure you: this is as edgy and challenging as things are gonna get.

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

I saw it in 2014. It wasn't particularly fresh then either.