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Stage Review: "Straight White Men"

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L-R: Richard Riehle, Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd and Brian Slaten (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

There’s something deceptively familiar about the first scene of Young Jean Lee’s play, Straight White Men, receiving its West Coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater. It opens with an American family gathered together for Christmas. The three adult Norton brothers spend a lot of time horsing around their dad’s living room in flannel jammies, re-enacting childhood pranks, recalling old nicknames and play-fighting with one another as though they’re young boys again. It’s the kind of reunion play whose lines often begin, “Remember the time . . .” So we know, with all this holiday cheer and familial merriment, that things are about to go to hell.

Sure enough, eldest son Matt (Brian Slaten) abruptly begins to cry as the brothers and their father eat a Chinese take-out dinner. Matt’s got a secret but this is 2015, so veteran theatergoers raised on the social-issue dramas of the late 20th century surmise it’s not that Matt is gay or that he has an incurable disease – especially since we also know this 90-minute play was written and directed by a New York playwright who is the reigning queen of experimental theater.

Matt’s family, however, is clueless. His novelist brother Drew (Frank Boyd), along with banker brother Jake (Gary Wilmes) and father Ed (Richard Riehle), take turns trying to draw out Matt on what’s eating him. A divide emerges: Should Matt seek a therapist? Should he be left alone? It’s from these questions that the explanation for Matt’s crying jag appears.

The cause lies in the Nortons’ moral DNA – they are ultra-liberal, service-minded folks who can laugh at their own lapses into cant or stridency, but who still see racists behind every tree and bend over backward not to offend anyone who is otherwise different from them. In the boys’ youth, in fact, their late mother made the family play a version of Monopoly that she doctored and rebranded “Privilege.” The politically corrected board game would make an ideal gift for people caught up in identity issues – unless, that is, they are straight white men.

And that’s why Matt, a failed Harvard PhD student, has become a lost soul working at menial temp jobs for other people’s causes. And why, facing the crushing debt of his student loans, he has moved in with his father. Matt, in other words, is paralyzed by the knowledge that while straight white men have routinely defined the direction of America’s various social justice movements (along with everything else), today they aren’t particularly needed. His malady is his malaise.

Playwright Lee has glimpsed some important truths about power in her story, but having done so, only describes what she has seen through her characters. She doesn’t, for example, press a full-throttled exploration of what it means to discover, as Matt does in middle age, that some people want to change the world because they believe they know what’s best for others. That’s a truth certainly not confined to straight white men or to the progressive end of the political spectrum.

This play could have been The Homecoming of American politics – cutting, acidic, revealing – but that wasn’t the kind of play Lee wanted to write. She has said that writing and staging a naturalistic play like Straight White Men has been a something of a genre experiment for her, which may explain why Lee’s direction of her ensemble doesn’t dig too deeply beneath the emotional surface – or stretch her audience’s expectations.


(Runs through December 20; see schedule.)

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