Well isn’t this a pleasant surprise. This production of Straight White Men at the Public sneaks up on you. Young Jean Lee lays all the cards out on the table and then performs slight-of-hand while you are watching. Like the blank wall that has no art on it because it is opposite the television and is therefore never looked at, she places objects in front of us and waits for us to see them.
Jake (Gary Wilmes) and Drew (Pete Simpson) are home for Christmas. It will be all boys this year because their mother is dead and their father Ed (Austin Pendleton) is sharing the house with the third brother, Matt (James Stanley). Jake and Drew are successful in their own ways out there in the world as a banker and a writer, respectively. Matt, on the other hand, although gifted with a great mind and an astonishing education, has stalled out.
Matt has started to pay attention and realizes that he doesn’t know anything really. His student loans are overwhelming – that is the excuse most easily used – but basically he has stopped moving. And as much as everyone loves everyone, this situation is not tolerable.
This is a family raised with all the correct left wing verbiage. Their mother even redesigned the Monopoly Game, calling it “Privilege” and changing the cards to slogans like “I don’t see race. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.” Jake is divorced from a black woman. Drew’s life approach is almost Buddhist – world peace through individual happiness. As a kid, Matt was always challenging the status quo – as in wearing KKK garb to the school production of Oklahoma because the director cast only white students. Ed is retired from a successful career that he never questioned. When he was coming up life was about getting and staying married, having a solid job and raising a family. Now he is aiming to have a little fun.
We get to know them over the 90 or so minutes in incremental ways. The dialogue tossed off easily as if it didn’t mean anything, until of course it does. By the time the heat in the room starts to rise we have a pretty good idea of who these men are. They love and resent one another. They admire and don’t understand one another. They accept and judge one another. In short, they are a family.
And they are a family of straight white men. The world IS their oyster and they know it, although they don’t much like talking about it. So when one of their own refuses the platter he is handed, the card he has been dealt just by being born, well it curdles their cupcakes. And try as we might, we cannot sit in judgment as they circle the wagons on Matt because Young Jean Lee has looped us into the circle. We are the observers and the observed.
The play concludes leaving us in question. As life always does. Kinf of perfect.
Straight White Men – Written and directed by Young Jean Lee
WITH: Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt) and Gary Wilmes (Jake).
Associate director, Emilyn Kowaleski; sets by David Evans Morris; lighting by Christopher Kuhl; costumes by Enver Chakartash; original music and remixes by Chris Giarmo; sound by Jamie McElhinney; dramaturgy by Mike Farry; movement by Faye Driscoll; production stage manager, Stephanie Byrnes Harrell; associate producer, Matthew Kagen; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director; and Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, Ms. Lee, artistic director; Aaron Rosenblum, producing director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Through Dec. 7. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.