Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, names and faces well-known to film and TV audiences, make self-assured Broadway debuts in Straight White Men. No sarcasm about artistic stretches or the lack thereof necessary.
Young Jean Lee’s delicate balance of a play, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with a more sensitive understanding of character than pace, brings together three adult brothers and their widowed dad over a Christmas holiday that will see laughter and tears.
And if there’s anything straight white men can’t handle, it’s tears, especially from other straight white men.
At least that’s the suggestion from the playwright’s outside-looking-in vantage. The first Asian-American female playwright to be produced on Broadway, Young Jean Lee confronts the controversial idea of writing what you aren’t from the very start of Straight White Men.
We meet the guys of the title following a brief direct-to-audience introduction by characters identified as Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, played, respectively, by Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe. They are not, most assuredly, straight white men.
“I’m from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations,” Defoe tells the audience. “My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means ‘transcending gender’ in the Ojibwe language.”
“Me, I’m a Jew from the Jersey shore,” Bornstein says. “And I’m what’s called ‘non-binary,’ which means ‘not man/not woman’ in the English language.” Then the two, charming throughout their too-brief visit, apologize for the very loud hip-hop music that blasted as the audience took its seats.
“Kate and I are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” Defoe says slyly, the audience catching his drift immediately.
Defoe and Bornstein will be silent throughout the rest of the intermissionless play, appearing only when needed to lead the topliners to their marks following scene changes. The point is – maybe, maybe not – to establish that this play about straight white men is not an objective, this-is-the-way-those-people-are case study.
Make no mistake, though: Hammer (Call Me By Your Name), Charles (The Good Wife), Schneider (Water For Elephants) and, as the father, Stephen Payne (August: Osage County) do indeed portray the seemingly endangered species of the title, their every movement taking place within the large, stage-containing wooden picture frame that suggests a family portrait come to life. An exceptionally good-looking family at that, privileged, it would seem, in most every way, including a self-awareness of their unfair good fortune, the results of a liberal mother who changed the name of Monopoly to Privilege and added rules like “Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail,” or “‘What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”
Gathering on Christmas Eve at their longtime family home – middle-class to its every inch of comfy plaid furniture and plastic Christmas tree – the four men are without women this holiday. Mom has been dead for an undisclosed number of years, but father Ed seems only to have recently stopped grieving. Perhaps that’s because eldest son Matt (Paul Schneider) has moved back home, a fine, easy-going companion whose compliant nature strikes all but the father as a bit odd.
Middle son Jake (Josh Charles, the strongest stage presence here), a successful banker and self-admitted asshole, is newly divorced, and baby of the bunch Drew (Armie Hammer, showing the same eager charisma that earned him a Golden Globe nomination last year), is a critically lauded, pretty as a picture novelist and teacher who probably won’t keep his latest girlfriend till Valentines Day.
Eldest Matt once the most promising of the entire brood, has given up on dating, and pretty much everything else.
As we watch the brothers tease, mock-fight and generally drive one another crazy with the same silly-voiced dad-make-him-stop antics they’ve been perfecting since childhood, something goes wrong. Out of nowhere, during a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese take-out consumed in the same couch positions the men have occupied since they actually fit, Matt quietly begins to sob.
No, these are not tears of joy or nostalgic yuletide sentiment. Something unnameable has entered this room, as mysterious (and real) as the free-floating terror that arrives with the neighbors in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance.
Matt, it seems, has no real reason for moving back in with the old man. He’s simply given up on the life to which he had long expected to lay claim. “I spent my whole life trying to make things better,” he says, “and everything I did just made things worse.”
Drew thinks Matt needs a shrink. Jake offers praise, insisting that Matt has taken a moral high road, putting the family’s long-held beliefs about white male privilege into action by simply making room for the unprivileged. Dad’s just stumped, so offers money. But all believe Matt’s wrong, in some way. Lazy, or sick or just, as one will eventually say, repugnant.
Harsh, right? Even if Matt was the most promising of all the little firebrands. In school he got a drama teacher fired over an all-white version of Oklahoma, rewriting lyrics in protest:
Ev’ry night my honey lamb and I/
Sit alone and talk, and burn a cross/
While the smoke makes circles in the sky.
Too clever by half? Too clever by three? If you think so, then you, too, might have trouble figuring out exactly when and how these 40-ish brothers spent their decades-ago childhoods pondering social inequities that seem taken from today’s headlines Would an all-white school cast of Oklahoma really have gotten a teacher fired even from the most liberal school when the 40-plus Matt was a student?
Other details and stage decisions nag as well. I suppose it’s possible Matt moved home, as his father believes, because of crippling student debt, but just as likely seems a playwright’s shoehorning of topical material. You’ll have time to think about that as the reiteration of arguments makes this 90-plus minute play feel stuck on repeat.
Or perhaps there’s a more generous interpretation: Straight White Men inhabits the absurdist realm of Albee’s A Delicate Balance, where naturalism itself is a facade, and sturdy furniture can feel less present than the psychological terrors haunting the characters and their creator. It’s a perspective worth considering.