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‘Straight White Men’ delivers humor, discomfort and surprising compassion

Marin Theatre Company’s newest production is sociopolitically loaded

Courtesy of Kevin Berne

The first thing that’ll hit you when you walk into Marin Theatre Company is the music, an amalgam of queer-pop and disco-funk, turned up twenty decibels too high for comfort. Forget trying to make pre-show small talk — this is an invitation for a dance party, and the more flamboyant of the two stagehands, referred to formally as Person in Charge 1 (J Jha, he/him/she/her/they/them), makes it known. Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans, she/her) maintains order and keeps the aisles clear, dishing out earplugs to any conspicuously uncomfortable patrons.

This is the framing device of “Straight White Men,” playwright Young Jean Lee’s (and Stanford visiting artist) subversive take on the hyperrealist, “straight white play.” Despite the implications of its title, straight white men wield no ownership of the play’s narrative critique, and the two stagehands make this abundantly clear. Throughout the story that unfolds in an unnervingly detailed suburban living room, they shift not only set pieces but also the actors around the stage, at choice moments even sitting back to watch the drama with a bowl of popcorn. And the game of metatheatrics is only elevated by the cleverly designed set by Luciana Stecconi, the aforementioned living room planted uncomfortably within a blindingly yellow wall, giving the illusion of a dollhouse floating in some nebulous nether-dimension.

Given this set-up, it’d be fair to assume that straight white men get the short end of the stick in this production, and in this day and age, this is all to easy. But “Straight White Men” doesn’t ever launch a full-fledged diatribe; it veers toward sympathy. We follow a family of, you guessed it, straight white men, over the Christmas holiday as they launch into festivities in a way only straight white men can. Over video games, Chinese takeout and a deluge of beer we learn about these characters. Ed is the supportive but slightly old-fashioned dad (played with charm by James Carpenter), and he’s joined by three sons that tackle, poke and wet-willy each other regardless of his presence in the room. Don’t be mistaken — these are grown men. The youngest, Drew (Christian Haines), a successful writer; the middle, Jake (Sean Gallagher), the young, up-and-coming banker and the oldest, Matt (Ryan Tasker), a Harvard grad that somehow ended up living with Dad and temping at a small non-profit.

Moments in the play tease at opportunities to shake our heads at the savage display of white maleness, from a family game of Privilege (essentially a social-justice revamp of Monopoly) to a cringe-inducing parody of “Oklahoma!” deriding the KKK. But a rare silence befalls the obnoxious antics when Matt unexpectedly breaks down in tears at dinner, and the men brainstorm the best cure to his sadness. Ed wants to give Matt his space and Drew thinks he should see a psychiatrist for depression. But Jake sees Matt’s quarter-life crisis as the ultimate self-sacrifice, because the world doesn’t need more white men on thrones.

“Straight White Men” garnered Lee critical success when it premiered at the Public Theater in 2014 and now hits Broadway while fulfilling its run at MTC. Like other plays in her audacious canon, it challenges the hypocrisies that belie liberal politics’ obsession with political correctness, and here the idea up for debate is arguably the most loaded of them all: the problematic existence of the straight white man. Given this lofty task, director Morgan Gould articulates the nuance of the text with calculated precision. Every gesture, transition and cross carries a sharpness akin to the motions of a murder mystery, except here the victim is a failure of a white man and the mystery of who or what we should to blame for his defeat. We never quite get an answer to this question, but by the end, we can’t deny that it isn’t always easy being straight, white and male.

With the heat around #MeToo and the smoldering language of the current immigration debate in our heads, we can all agree that another self-assured white man is the last thing we need. In walks Matt, unassuming and aimless — the answer to our prayers — and we can’t help but feel disappointed. There’s a powerful moment at the end of the play where Matt holds Person in Charge 1’s gaze for a fleeting second before the latter turns away, out of disgust or grief, we don’t know.

This is a statement that could easily be miscommunicated — and yet the writing, direction and energetic ensemble cast meet each other to make it work. However, an interesting issue that’s momentarily raised in the pre-show announcement but otherwise dismissed is who this production aims to serve. “Our pre-show music may have made some of you uncomfortable,” Person in Charge 1 begins, “And normally when you pay money, you can expect to be comfortable … But for those of you who liked or didn’t mind the music, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience.”

The admission of theater as a privileged space and the purposeful demolition of that privilege is admirable, but here at the MTC, as in most theaters around the country, the effort doesn’t come to fruition. Decorating the lobby and even the stalls of the bathroom are posters explaining the concept of genderqueer as if it were a foreign concept, and still the audience is predominantly old, white, and male. Unfortunately, even the deafening music cannot drown out the institutions of privilege that feed theater’s very existence.

And perhaps that’s the real ironic critique within “Straight White Men,” that, love it or hate it, we need the power that white men harness to get work done. We don’t need men like Matt, not because they move society in the wrong direction; they don’t move, period. In the world manic about progress, that’s just not acceptable. The complexity this play brings out of a population we’ve come to caricature is what we need in this time of confusion, and for that alone, “Straight White Men” deserves its importance.

 

Contact Starr Jiang at yuchenj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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