Sunday, 23 November 2014

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee at the Public Theater

     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is an homage to American domestic realism and in a tradition of plays about male angst such as Jason Miller's THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON. The straight white men in Lee's play may be beer-guzzling, but they are not the ignorant bozos of much "guy" narrative on film, television or on stage. These guys are well educated, highly articulate and they understand the new rules of political correctness. They play a home-made revised version of monopoly called "Privilege"that both validates and mocks politically correct concepts of race and gender. It's Christmas time and three grown sons have come back home to celebrate with widowed Dad, who is a retired engineer. The youngest son is a tenured professor, the middle son a banker. Only Matt, the oldest son, is incapable of fitting in twenty-first century capitalistic society. He's not even particularly good at being counter-cultural. At the moment, he has a temp job for a charity and is living with his father. All three sons are now single (one s divorced). Some of what we see is the usual regression of adults who return home for the holidays. These men can bond through familiar rituals of horseplay and teasing. When words are added, arguments ensue.
     The major conflicts begin when Matt breaks down and cries at Christmas Eve supper (take-out Chinese). Jake, the middle son, praises Matt's heroic resistance to the system. Younger son Drew wants Matt to get help, to find out the cause of his malaise. Father referees until the climactic scene. The crux of these family conflicts is whether failure by the standards of American capitalism is tolerable. Along the way there are a lot of humorous barbs thrown at upper middle class assumptions. These guys see themselves as liberal, as right thinking politically. Are they on the most basic issues?
     STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a fascinating ninety minutes of theatre, a twenty-first century version of the kind of work Arthur Miller did after World War II -- there's a kinship between these brothers and the brothers Biff and Happy in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. As usual, Lee has directed her own work and done so beautifully. The brothers (Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, James Stanley) seem so natural that one feels almost like a voyeur. Austin Pendleton is either trying for his idea of naturalistic acting (more likely) or is fumbling for lines -- the effect is the same and the play would be five minutes shorter and tighter without his dithering over lines. Just about every speech is preceded by some arm flailing then some "uh"s before he gets around to the line. I thought that kind of method acting had been thrown onto the dustheap of theater history.
     Well worth seeing.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. The Public Theater. November 22, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment