By Stanford Friedman
Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men is an equal-opportunity play, in that there is not enough to it to satisfy anyone. It is also a missed opportunity play. Ostensibly an examination of the meaning of accomplishment as applied to a family of man-boys, the production, directed with an air of desperation by Anna D. Shapiro, stumbles and stalls its way across 90 minutes of stilted dialogue, shoulder punching, vacuum cleaning and satiric dancing, before soft-braking to its unsatisfying conclusion.
The play proceeds bit by bit, by which I mean the work is a series of self-contained short pieces of business, rather than a cohesive whole. The first bit is a gambit, and it begins before the beginning. The audience enters the theater to find blaring rap music, flashing lights and a hideous silver shimmer curtain dangling across the proscenium (Masochists are advised to arrive as early as possible.). “Am I in the right theater,” I asked myself? Were movie star Armie Hammer and TV’s Josh Charles some sort of celebrity bait to lure us here? Then the play begins and two characters, Person in Charge #1 and #2 (Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe) take the stage to celebrate their non-straight-white-maleness and to explain how that aggravating pre-show was actually a headache, um, I mean head-fake, meant to give us cozy theater goers a taste of what it feels like to suffer an uncomfortable environment. It is a point well taken, and perhaps the risk of alienating the audience would have been worth it if what came next could effectively play off the discomfort.
Instead, there is a downshift and we are handed the vanilla tale of three adult brothers, Jake (Mr. Charles), Drew (Mr. Hammer) and Matt (Paul Schneider) who along with their father, Ed (Stephen Payne), have gathered to celebrate Christmas at the family home. We are treated to a different type of irritation here, having to tag along as the siblings constantly prank each other, screeching in each other’s ears, shoving each other off the sofa, taking digs at their not perfect but fairly entitled livelihoods. We learn that Jake can be a jerk albeit a self-aware one, Drew has been through therapy, and Matt is a little lost and sad, but mostly just a normal guy with a large student loan. They play a cleverly written though poorly staged version of Monopoly which they have revamped into a board game called Privilege (“Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.”). They sing a racism-inspired parody of “Oklahoma.” They dance together to recapture their childhood. They spill chips and vacuum them up. They come to terms with their varying ideas of what it means to be successful.
Mr. Schneider brings a nicely honed melancholy to Matt which gives us something to hold onto while Mr. Charles and Mr. Hammer dig to find brotherly love beneath their roughhousing, but come up empty. As Ed, Mr. Payne has little to do except continue to see his sons as children and take numbingly long pauses between each line. With the shimmer curtain removed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design reveals a wooden picture frame around the entire proscenium, as if we were viewing a painting in a museum. Sometimes abstract, sometimes postmodern; if only the canvas had a little more texture.
Straight White Men – By Young Jean Lee; Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
WITH: Kate Bornstein (Person in Charge 1), Josh Charles (Jake), Ty Defoe (Person in Charge 2), Armie Hammer (Drew), Stephen Payne (Ed) and Paul Schneider (Matt).
Sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Suttirat Larlarb; lightning by Donald Holder; sound by M.L. Dogg; choreography by Faye Driscoll; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Jane Grey; stage manager, Brian Bogin. Second Stage Theater at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W 44th St., 212-239-6200, www.2st.com. Through Sept. 9. Running time: 90 minutes.