Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee wrote a play about straight white men from the non-white female perspective.
James Joyce said, “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Young Jean Lee doesn’t take Joyce’s advice. That’s plain to see in the current production of Lee’s “Straight White Men” at Florida Studio Theatre.
The Korean-American artist puts her cards on the table. She isn’t invisible or indifferent. Her point-of-view is in plain sight. Lee could’ve called her play “My Three Sons.” But she titled it, “Straight White Men,” instead. To drive her point home, the play is narrated by two “Persons in Charge,” who are neither straight, white, nor male. Lee’s play might be about “straight white men.” But this time around, it’s not their point-of-view. And, in case you’re still not crystal clear, the “pre-show” interlude fills your ears with deafening, bass-thudding, disco synth music that the typical straight white male would hate.
Now on with the show.
Meet the Nortons, a privileged white male family. Ed (Phillip Clark), a jovial, retired widower in his 70s, lives with his son, Matt (Jess Prichard), in a cozy house in the Midwest. His other two sons, Jake (Justin Adams) and Drew (Matt Koenig), drop by for their annual Christmas reunion. Jake’s a rich banker who feels guilty about his advantages, but not guilty enough to help the disadvantaged. Drew is a trendy, left-leaning novelist, who teaches classes when he isn’t writing. He rails against America’s soul-destroying consumer culture, though he stops short of a vow of poverty. Matt’s the best and brightest of the bunch, but he’s nursing some inner wound. Dad is napping, and joins the party later.
While Dad’s away, the boy’s will play. And they play rough.
The Norton house has an “Animal House” vibe. The trash-talking brothers horse around, aim darts at each other’s egos, and wrestle, both verbally and physically. There’s constant one-upmanship, put-downs, and practical jokes. But it’s all in love, right? Right.
Then Dad finally shows up. The boys settle down, but not out of fear. Ed’s an affable fellow, who only occasionally lays down the law. In honor of family tradition, Dad pops on goofy flannel PJs, and insists the boys don theirs. They comply, order Chinese takeout, and dig in. It’s all happy-happy. Then Matt starts crying for no reason. Why are you crying? Matt ducks that question. But the questions don’t stop, and it’s downhill from there.
Jake assumes Matt weeps for the injustice of the world — and his loser lifestyle is a form of silent protest against white privilege. (Like the hero of “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance-Runner,” he’s dropped out of the rat race because he knows it’s fixed.) Drew assumes that Matt is suffering from clinical depression and needs therapy and meds. Matt doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. Ed just wants the boys to shut up and not ruin Christmas. They don’t take the hint. The polite questions devolve into a grilling session. Christmas is, in fact, ruined. And you never find out what’s wrong with Matt. There’s no wrap-up, revelation, epiphany or Aristotelian conclusion.
Lee’s script deliberately keeps you off balance. You know where the playwright’s coming from — you never know where she’s going. Kate Alexander’s direction perfectly fits this rope-a-dope approach.
Thom Beaulieu’s lighting turns somber as the play’s mood darkens; but he starts out with the shadow-free brightness of a situation comedy. Sean Fanning’s set also evokes the look of a sitcom. It’s friendly, a tad banal, a little on the shabby side. (Ed isn’t rich; and he’s not a good candidate for one of those home makeover shows, either.) Susan Angermann’s costumes nicely evoke the Nortons’ comfy, middle-class isolation bubble. (Her geeky pajamas are a hoot.) Kudos also to Thom Korp for the sound design — especially the bone rattling disco inferno, which precedes the actual show.
The actors make their own journey from paradise to purgatory.
Adams’ Jake is brimming with charisma and self-confidence. He’s clueless to his own cruelty when he shows Matt how to succeed in a job interview in a brutal role-playing session.
Koenig’s Drew is an intellectual but not full of himself. (He’s also capable of cruelty.) Prichard delivers an internalized performance as Matt. He’s troubled, brooding and withdrawn. But he can’t put his pain into words — and brushes off his brothers’ explanations. Clark’s affable Ed is a true Mr. Nice Guy. He never puts on his Santa Suit, but he’d be perfect. Sandra Caldwell (an African-American trans woman) and JP Moraga (a gender non-conforming individual from the Philippines) are suitably sassy as the Persons in Charge.
With a title like “Straight White Men,” you might expect a brittle indictment of four cartoon Caucasians. But Lee’s play is oddly warm and stubbornly fair. The Nortons aren’t racist, sexist, homophobic, bad guys. They’re all filled with white guilt. They put themselves on trial. The playwright doesn’t.
So what’s Lee up to?
My mental jury is still out.
Her play begins as hilarious farce, and gradually turns to brittle tragedy. There’s a three-act structure but no intermission. The Persons in Charge arrange the characters like puppets at the start of each act.
That might be a clue to Lee’s intentions. These white men aren’t in charge. They’re history’s pawns. Maybe. But Lee doesn’t spell it out.
The late, lamented mother haunts the play like a ghost. She was a feminist and a social justice warrior, who created an anti-Monopoly board game called “Privilege” to school her boys on their unfair advantages. The boys learned their lessons well.
Jake is a financial success, but he feels guilty for all the right (politically correct) reasons. (“Our success is a problem, not a solution!”) Drew writes socially aware novels that make other white people feel guilty. And he’s proud of it. (“White people can make a difference!”) Matt is now a dropout. Once upon a time, he was a social justice warrior in his own right. Matt shut down an all-white production of “Oklahoma” with a KKK version of the title song. (Which the brothers hilariously reenact on stage.) He later went on to study at Harvard and Stanford, and made his way up the ranks of global NGOs. But his brilliant future is behind him. After his mother died, Matt lost heart and returned home. Now, he tidies up Dad’s house and does part-time work at a local charity. Underwhelming the world.
Who’s doing the right thing here? Do the brothers even have that option? Mom woke them up to their white privilege. Now what? How exactly should they repent?
Lee asks these questions. She does it, without lining up four Caucasian strawmen. She sympathizes with their plight, without whitewashing their complicity. (And has been criticized in left-wing circles for pulling her punches.)
Ultimately, her play is a character study of four white guys whose time is coming to an end. What happens next? Where do they go from here?
The playwright doesn’t say.
Your guess is as good as mine.