A theater and film artist known for her impressive résumé of provocative pieces that slap us awake with gender politics (the all-nude Untitled Feminist Show), racial identity (The Shipment), her own mortality (We're Gonna Die) and Asian stereotypes (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), Young Jean Lee tackles her first straight play. Using her NY theater company, plenty of improv and seminars with non-white college kids, Lee fashioned a well-made play, her first in the narrative mode.
Appropriately titled Straight White Men, it's a noble work, naturalistic in presentation, as linear as Clifford Odets during his Group Theatre days, as it confronts us with hot-button, headline issues of liberal white guilt and privilege. Although it tries hard to waken us from our complacency, it's slim in the extreme as it bumps and rattles over familiar ground, getting stuck in unnecessary ruts and detours. The script is propelled by the fine ensemble cast, to Stages' credit, who delve deep into their stereotypical characters to bring them alive with much fuller detail than Lee provides. At its best, SWM is a warm dissection of family dynamics and dysfunction; at its worst and most annoying, it parodies a Bernie Sanders stump speech.
The adult sons of widowed patriarch Ed (James Belcher) have arrived for Christmas. It is a most handsome family room, something right out of HGTV with its sweeping stone fireplace, elegant wainscoting, and overstuffed furniture. Ryan McGettigan's marvelous design bespeaks wealth and status. This is a successful man's home. Youngest Drew (Jason Duga) is still a kid at heart, singing “I'm a Little Airplane” to distract middle brother Jake (David Matranga), newly divorced, from his video game. Eldest Matt (Adam Noble) lives with dad as housekeeper and companion. This is his story.
The boys roughhouse, reminisce, sing Matt's high school anti-parody of “Oklahoma” and generally assume the roles they've always played growing up. They're solicitous to their father to a fault, even donning the flannel pjs he buys them to wear Christmas eve. Only Matt seems estranged and preoccupied. During Chinese takeout dinner, all of them seated on the family room couch – passive-aggressively commanded there by Dad – Matt suddenly bursts into uncontrollable sobs. He says he doesn't know why the meltdown and everybody please forget it, okay? Well, of course, nobody can. Conveniently, we get the backstory along with a ton of psychobabble about “self-actualization,” “realizing your potential” and how not to make the world worse by being a white straight man.
This is a terribly liberal household, the sons schooled by their parents from the get-go. Mom even made her own board game for the kids from a used Monopoly set. She called it Privilege, and there's a black power fist glued to the inside box lid. Jake and Drew begin to play, rolling dice as if they were six years old again, pretending to snort them out of their nose, vomit them or dump them from their ass. The little iron icon is the symbol of oppression, and the Chance cards have been relabeled Excuses. One reads, “What I just said wasn't racist/sexist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay $50 to an LGBT organization.” No wonder these kids are stunted.
Matt has our sympathy even before the meltdown. Teacher Drew is immature; banker Jake is pompous and hypocritical, hating his wealth but reveling in it; Dad spouts platitudes. But they all want to help Matt. He's obviously Dad's favorite and the smartest among them. After ten years trying for his Ph.D., he now holds temp jobs at social service groups. He has no initiative, never makes waves and is uninterested in being “useful.” He protests that he's content living with Dad. Such a personal attitude of laissez-faire is anathema to his politically correct, guilt-laden family. Selfish, loser, unmotivated – why won't you do something?
They hold an intervention of sorts, a pseudo-interview, to teach Matt to be assertive and positive. It's the play's most unbelievable scene, totally unnecessary because it shows us what we've already gleaned about Matt through Lee's fine-grained subtext. Naturally, Matt fails his “interview” miserably. Dad assumes it's his student debts that are holding him back, and he offers to pay them off. No, is Matt's stoic answer. At play's end, Dad's intractable final fix to help his son will probably be fragile Matt's downfall, but that's left open-ended.
Matt is the only character free from cant. Frozen with inertia, he's also the most authentic, and Noble, with mountain man beard and soulful eyes, has our heart. Does he care about the world? Is he a failure? We'll never know, which is Lee's ultimate ace. She treats him with respect, or the respect you'd show a wounded animal. She doesn't talk down to him. We don't know what his root problems are, only that they're deep, searing and probably unfixable. Noble shows that magnificently. His performance is galvanizing and terribly touching — might I say noble.
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The other actors, good as they are under Leslie Swackhamer's deft and rambunctious direction, just don't have the depth of backstory to make their characters anything more than mouthpieces who spout slogans and placard talking points. When the play stalls, Lee relies on a cappella musical numbers to carry the show. When uptight Dad starts twerking, it's the audience who's being pandered to. The sibling fun is certainly infectious, but there's more going on under the surface in this family than butt pats and bad dance moves – stuff that Lee doesn't explore or sufficiently mine. It's not only white guilt and privilege that has scarred this family to its core. Something more relevant swirls beneath. Unearth that!
And who is this character in glam black leather called Stagehand-in-Charge (Stoo Gogo), and why is she here stage-managing the props, cleaning up the stage and gesturing dramatically to cue the lights? What's she supposed to represent? Is there significance to her being black? It's another intriguing but ultimately inconsequential aspect of this play that masks as oh-so-relevant but is only skin deep.
To be absolutely politically correct and fair, what Straight White Men needs is another son, like a Ted Cruz surrogate, to stir Lee's low-simmer cauldron and add brazen tang. Young Jean Lee might have a cow – but a much truer, fresher drama.
Straight White Men continues through March 6 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $23-$49.