Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review of "Straight White Men"

A family reunion during the Christmas holiday is the setting for playwright Young Jean Lee’s mostly terrific play Straight White Men.  The men, in this case, are an aged father and his three grown-up sons, in their mid to late 30’s.  Together, for their yearly celebration, the quartet of guys are goofy, reminiscent and, at certain points, serious-minded. 

Their comradery and constant teasing can be very funny.  Let’s just say I will never think the same way of a certain type of protein and Chinese food ever again.  It is during this traditional meal that a hint of instability is first raised as Matt, the eldest son, breaks down in tears for no apparent reason.  This incident serves as a vehicle to propel the production forward as, in between the horseplay and exuberance, the other two siblings and their father attempt to help, even fix, what they perceive to be their brother’s problem.

Ms. Lee’s play can be very, very funny.  Where it starts to go astray is trying to decipher what message the author wants to convey to the audience.  There is much talk of white privilege—when the boys were young and their mother was alive she taught them about social justice and caring about the downtrodden--but there are also discussions of mental health and about people fulfilling their potential.  With no consistent slant, it is hard to grasp the central thrust of the play.

Then there is the loud, very loud, music that greets theatergoers as they take their seats.  The reason, as presented before the show begins by two characters - “Person in Charge 1 and 2” – is supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, just like these gender non-specific performers may feel in a world of Straight White Men.  The idea provides interesting food for thought, but distracts from the primary focus of the show.

The ensemble cast works so well together.  Josh Charles (Jake), Armie Hammer (Drew), and Paul Schneider (Matt) have an ease and comfort level that come across as genuine and unaffected. Their interactions and tomfoolery appear heartfelt and true to life.  Paul Schneider, who portrays their father Ed, has an easy-going, old-fashioned disposition, which subtly provides a stabilizing presence within the endless barrage of shenanigans.

Director Anna D. Shapiro has fully grasped the playfulness, togetherness, and smoldering tensions within a maturing family.  Her guidance appears almost effortless during the scenes that relive family traditions and memories.  Her task is more challenging, and less successful, in putting forth a cohesive point of view of by the author.

Todd Rosenthal’s set design is homey and reminiscent of every comfy den from what seems like the 1980’s.

Straight White Men, at times hilarious even as its more serious side can be convoluted.

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