In case you have been singing loudly with your fingers stuffed in your ears for, say, a year and a half, you have probably noticed much soul-searching in the media, along with plenty of outraged finger-wagging, about the straight white American male. There are, for one, the forgotten men of the middle classes who voted a dubiously qualified straight white man into office (with help from some of their better-off brothers and sisters), but also the men in Hollywood and elsewhere whose bad behavior has made for endless headlines, and brought some once-mighty figures low.
So you might expect that “Straight White Men,” a comedy on Broadway, would approach the species in question with a smirk. Especially if you knew that the author of the play, Young Jean Lee, happens to be an Asian-American woman.
But as she has been doing ever since she burst upon the downtown theater scene more than a decade ago, Lee confounds expectations, with each new work being a radical dart in a new direction. That she has managed to cover so much territory (feminism, black identity politics, mortality) while continually playing with theatrical form is a testament to her great talent and her still greater curiosity.
“Straight White Men,” first seen at the Public Theater in 2014, arrives on Broadway with a sprinkling of stardust and a new director, Anna D. Shapiro — elements that alter the play’s chemistry without, thankfully, upending or distorting its melancholy and its gently pointed meanings. True, the presence of the well-known actors Armie Hammer and Josh Charles brings a frisson of audience excitement into the room: The play’s stockpile of jokes land with a more vivid punch. We may sometimes decry the reliance on stars to sell tickets, but they also bring the affection of fans who might otherwise be indifferent to new plays.
And in addition to being naturally charismatic performers, Hammer and Charles are skilled actors who inhabit their characters with an easy grace matched by the work of their less-famous comperes onstage, Stephen Payne and, in the play’s quietest but most essential role, the wonderful Paul Schneider. Together the actors, portraying a father (Payne) and his three adult sons reuniting for Christmas, illuminate the play with a combination of boisterousness and humor that still leaves room for the sadness simmering underneath.
Schneider’s Matt, the oldest brother, in his mid-40s, is the source of that melancholy. He has moved back in with his widower father, Ed, and spends much of the play attending to household chores — ordering the Chinese for dinner, vacuuming up the spilled chips — at the same time as he fends off the increasingly aggressive, if well-meaning, exhortations of his brothers, the just-divorced banker Jake (Charles) and the university professor and award-winning novelist Drew (Hammer).
For while Jake and Drew have forged successful careers, Matt, considered the most promising of the three — he has a Harvard degree — never found a comfortable path in life. In addition to taking care of his father (a traditionally female role, it hardly needs noting), he works as a temp at a “community organization.” He is by conventional standards — at least by those of the white middle class — a “loser.”
What really rankles Jake and Drew, and eventually, heartbreakingly, even Ed: Matt is just fine with his situation, although he resists any easy explanations of why he suddenly burst into tears over the Chinese food.
The play unfolds naturalistically, within a new device that feels unnecessary: We are welcomed into the theater by two gender-non-specific actors, Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, whose introductory shtick is charming but superfluous. Indeed when Defoe says, “As foreign as they are to us, we’re gonna try to find some understanding for straight white men,” it’s a rather bald spoiler.
For Lee does have great sympathy for her characters. While Jake has a slightly arrogant strut, he was raised, like his brothers, with a full awareness of how uneven the playing field is. Although he married a black woman, he lacerates himself (mildly) for his inability to promote people of color at his bank, and his casual jokes about gays.
Charles imbues Jake with a likable self-assurance that gradually shades into festering irritation. At first Jake resists Drew’s pointed insistence that their brother is a problem to be solved. Yes, Matt cried into his mu shu pork, but, as Jake says when Drew keeps insisting that Matt is somehow broken, “I’m not the one freaking out that a dude cried!”
As Drew, Hammer is equally fine at treading the line between frustration at Matt and sincere sympathy. His insistence that Matt needs to be be in therapy or on medication, to get out of dad’s house and live his own life, is rendered with an amiability that, like Jake’s, ultimately flares into contempt.
Payne is also terrific as the grizzled paterfamilias, who still treats his sons as overgrown boys — stuffing their stockings with socks and candy canes. (The macho horseplay among the boys is a sly commentary on just where the American ethos of becoming king of the mountain comes from: the Y chromosome.) Ed tries to deflect all attempts to make Matt discuss what is ailing him, but eventually he too is drawn into the fray, blaming Matt’s crushing student debt.
But what is most moving, and meaningful, in Lee’s writing is that she sees more deeply into Matt’s predicament — if it is indeed a predicament — than even his loving family. No, he’s not intentionally deferring to the less privileged, refusing to fulfill his potential as an act of martyrdom. He’s not chronically depressed. And nor, as Ed sees it more simply, does he just need a nudge and a check to right his emotional ship.
In Lee’s compassionate view, Matt is simply rejecting the terms of achievement that have long held sway in American culture, in which a man’s (or woman’s) worth is defined by outer and inner trappings of success. This achievement may come in many forms, most obviously financial, but it also includes the acquisition of sufficient “self-esteem” and the securing of that elusive American birthright, happiness. These things have lost meaning for Matt, who can only say that his goal is to be “useful.” His definition of usefulness differs so strongly from the conventional that this makes him a “freak,” as Jake refers to him.
But is he the freak, or are we the freaks? “Straight White Men,” a smart, funny and affecting play that reaffirms Lee’s status as one of the most important playwrights working today, questions traditional notions of what a successful life might mean, at the same time underscoring how the ideals we are all expected to live by have been dictated by, yes, straight white men.
Chekhov is of course the great master at depicting the beauty in unfulfilled lives, and Lee here pays tribute (intentionally or not) to his boundless empathy. Matt’s life isn’t necessarily tragic, or a failure; the tragedy lies in how he is cruelly punished, by those who love him most, for not living according to the unquestioned, possibly superficial values of the society that we all live in.
“Straight White Men” opened on Mon. July 23, 2018 at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Creative: Written by Young Jean Lee; Directed by Anna D. Shapiro; Choreographer by Faye Driscoll; Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal; Costume Design Suttirat Larlarb; Lighting by Donald Holder; Sound Design by M.t. Dogg; Hair Design by Jason Allen.
Producers: Produced by Second Stage Theater; originally co-produced by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company.
Cast: Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, Kate Bornstein, Josh Charles, Ty DeFoe, Paul Schneider.