On Broadway, ‘Straight White Men’ Is Somewhat Bent Over

Young Jean Lee isn't necessarily crafting drama about what she knows so much as depending on others for what they know.

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Straight White Men
Stephen Payne. Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in Young Jean Lee's "Straight White Men." Photo: Joan Marcus.

When Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men actually begins — after a garish silver-streamer show curtain disappears and sound designer M.L. Dogg stops piping in insistent rock music — Kate Bornstein, the transgendered semi-celebrity, and Ty Defoe, an outspoken Native American of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations, declare they’re anything but straight white men and chat for several minutes as Person in Charge 1 (Bornstein) and Person in Charge 2 (Defoe). They talk about themselves and why they’re present. Then, as Lee’s play begins in earnest, they occasionally lead the actors playing the titular straight white men onto Todd Rosenthal’s nice notion of a middle-class suburban living room. They also show up one final time to snap the play to a close.

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When Straight White Men bowed at the Public Theater in 2014, no such Persons in Charge presided (if my memory serves me, and I think it does). In the earlier incarnation, Lee’s look at America’s fading white-male majority registered to me as only so-so. The uptown addition seems like an attempt to tart up a play that needs a bit of the old oomph.

Or it might be that, between 2014 and 2018, Lee was struck by the idea of a framing device to present the father and brothers as specimens of that increasingly insignificant straight-white-men group. Whatever the motive, the changes are lame. They don’t spark the plot. They impede it.

Ed (Stephen Payne) host his three sons — Drew (Armie Hammer), Jake (Josh Charles) and Matt (Paul Schneider) — over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the day after Christmas. Matt has been living with his dad for awhile when Drew and Jake show up.

Gathered together, they reminisce, discuss where they are in their lives, and change into the pajamas that Ed bought for them. A good deal of their bonding has the fellas swinging into production routines they’d obviously sharpened years before. These moments, by the way, are the highlights of the play.

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Not much that you would consider dramatic, however, transpires between and among them until Matt begins to sob. For the rest of the play’s 90 intermissionless minutes, Drew, Jake and Ed try to get to the bottom of Matt’s despair. Each has a different approach, Drew’s is the most insistent. These approaches then become a source of family dissension, and the men increasingly become estranged from each other. Matt insists that it isn’t a problem that he’s ignoring the need to establish personal goals for himself. Given his crying jag, this is difficult for the others to take on board.

As the end of the play nears, on the other hand, Matt, sitting alone, gazing into an unrevealing future, feels like Lee’s vision for the meager prospects of all straight white men right now. A cheery prognostication it is not.

Straight White Man represents the first time that an Asian-American woman has had a play bow on Broadway — a notable, long-overdue event. But it’s not as if the Korean-born Lee has sprung full-blown on the theater horizon. From 2003 to 2016 she headed Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, which earned her work quite a following. During those years, she developed a series of plays that often, if not always, centered on her interest in what might be considered tribal identities. From what I understand, she often puts together projects through actors’ improvisations. It could well be that the Straight White Men group routines are the result of such improv.

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But it could be argued that Lee’s interest in group identities has drawbacks. She’s not necessarily crafting drama about what she knows so much as depending on others to fill her in on what they know. I would say that Straight White Men evinces this problem. It comes across as a play by a woman who decided to see if she could write about straight white men but then doesn’t quite get it right.

For example, she hones in meaningfully on Matt’s discontent but not entirely satisfyingly; as characters, both Matt and Drew are sketchy. The bluster in their conflict both needs and deserves deeper clarification. Too often, Ed observes silently when instead he might have something trenchant, something fatherly, to say to his boys.

Of the acting, under Anna D. Shapiro’s direction, there’s nothing to complain about. Hammer, Charles, Schneider and Payne pump enough life into the play to give it a reality that the script doesn’t always earn. The manner in which they give themselves over to macho dancing and prancing is especially commendable. I should note, too, that Tom Skerritt was originally announced to play Ed: it may well be that his and Hammer’s casting was a substantial rationale for the Broadway transfer. But Skerritt dropped out and was replaced by Dennis Arndt, who dropped out and was replaced by Payne. Whether this is fair to say or not, such occurrences during a rehearsal process can start the wrong — or right — kind of skeptical thinking about a dramatic enterprise such as this one.

Straight White Men also reminded me of the beloved TV series Designing Women. On that show, four straight white women (and a few others) mostly sat on a sofa and interacted. In Straight White Men, four straight white men mostly sit on a sofa and interact. It worked on TV. Things do not compare here so favorably.