Entertainment » Television

Straight White Men

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Sep 11, 2018
Ken Cheeseman and Shelly Bolman in 'Straight White Men,' continuing through Sept. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts
Ken Cheeseman and Shelly Bolman in 'Straight White Men,' continuing through Sept. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts   (Source:New Repertory Theatre)

No wonder straight white men are in such a nationalistic panic over anyone not of their own ethnic ilk. Anyone who's not a straight white man might just go and write funny, scathing plays that call out and mock straight white men, especially for their delusions of grandeur.

That, one suspects, is one of several layers of reasoning behind the title of this cryptic comedy from Korean-born playwright Young Jean Lee, who came to the States at the age of two an grew up to become the first Asian-American woman to author a play that went up on Broadway. Said title is none other than - you guessed it - "Straight White Men."

This is a play that functions in two literary strata, one of which is an insular and contained narrative and the other of which works on a meta-level. We in the audience know we're watching a play about a family of men - a father and three sons - in the American Midwest; we also know that we've put into a frame of mind designed to call into question all the hard-coded assumptions about class, race, and respectability that "traditional" (i.e., white) America has long insisted on promoting. That means we're watching the play with the expectation that those assumptions will be subverted - and they are, though not always in the ways we might expect. What's more, the characters we know are realty actors are also actors who know we see them both as actors and as characters, which is why... one presumes... there's a fleeting moment that revolves around a cell phone going off in the audience. It doesn't become a big deal, and it's never again referenced after it happens, but that tiny moment is like the little nail from which you hang a room-dominating work of art. Without it, you lose the ability to cement a mood and secure a point of view.

The scene is set before the play starts with a clever use of narrative negative space. What could stand in starker contrast to a play about a bunch of white heterosexual guys than a clutch of filthy rap songs played at top volume? Or provoke the kind of squirmy restlessness among straight males that you see afflict your iPhone's screen icons when you're deleting unused apps than a flirty, flamboyant Person in Charge (Dev Blair) who works the crowd before the show and then makes a point, while delivering the standard spiel about there being exits for use in case of emergency, of explaining that they use pronouns other than the binary "he/him" and "she/her" options?


The cast of 'Straight White Men,' continuing through Sept. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts  (Source:New Repertory Theatre)

Once the play proper begins, your head is already in a whirl. The Person in Charge literally sets the scene, leading the characters onto the set and arranging them like figures in a dollhouse. What we get from this is the sense that we're not seeing a bitter send-up so much as a playfully precise, brutally literal representation. Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.) and Drew (Michael Kaye) may be in their 30s, but they are still middle child and youngest brother, respectively, and as such the action commences with Jake playing a video game and Drew buzzing around him, singing a Jonathan Richman song in an attempt to distract and engage. Wrestling and crude jokes ensue, but what's even better is how they take place against the backdrop of a family home in which diversity and cultural sensitivities of all sorts were encouraged.

This isn't as repressive as it sounds. In the case of paterfamilias Ed (Ken Cheeseman) and his late wife, political correctness is turned inside out to the point of becoming a sort of all-encompassing, all-accepting mix of the inclusive and the puerile. It's a delicate and non-intuitive balance, and yet it also rings true; in one example - an anecdote calling back to the brothers' childhood - oldest sibling Matt (Shelley Bolman), we learn, took such umbrage at a gross-out game Jake and his friends were playing that he urinated on the lot of them. This, of course, was a repudiation of the game, but one that honored the spirit of the game even while rejecting it.

Lee brings a coolly assessing eye to this material, knowing exactly what she's riffing on and how to dismantle it with minimal fuss. Thus, this play could only be set on Christmas, the lodestar - if you will - for wholesome American family drama (and all its discontented offspring). Will Ed play Santa for his boys? Or will they, in their extended adolescence, take up that baton for themselves? What will the Yuletide feast look like? Who will keep the whole holiday gathering from going up in smoke, or down in a slurry of alcoholic libations and flailing fists?

It's Matt who fulfills that function. This is another savage twist, because Matt - unlike Jake, the banker, and Drew, the novelist and tenured professor - is rudderless and existentially puzzled. He's living at home with Ed and working a low-paying job while struggling with student loan debt that's got more real-world weight than the prestige of having gone to Harvard and Stanford. When Matt inexplicably begins sobbing at Christmas dinner, he sparks a smoldering family feud the ramifications of which extend well beyond the walls of Ed's house. Drew insists that Matt needs therapy; Jake asserts that Matt is simply depressed, a virtuous soul too good for a world that punishes principles and runs roughshod over the disenfranchised. No one thinks to ask Matt himself what's going on, and then listen to him when he tries to explain himself - and when he does try to clue in his father and brothers, Matt finds himself banging his head against perspectives on masculinity that have exerted a toxic effect on the globe for centuries.


The cast of 'Straight White Men,' continuing through Sept. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts  (Source:New Repertory Theatre)

His family's view of manhood is maddeningly dualistic: One is either a conqueror or an aesthete; either an agent of colonization and cultural imperialism or a combination of saint and philosopher king; either a soul suffering a sickness unto death or else a venerable, holy presence. Dualistic attitudes become antagonistic as soon as Matt ventures to express a way of thinking that falls outside this box, and this is true in spite of Matt's many moments of weird guy stuff, age-inappropriate conduct he throws himself into with all the same abandon as his less reflective brothers or even his somewhat crotchety dad.

To Ed and the others, Matt's quiet, constructive presence - "I want to be useful," he tells them - is comprehensible only in the context of clich├ęs: The slacker, the tortured artist, or the economically paralyzed whose ambitions could be rekindled with an infusion of cash. But what if Matt is, in truth, just a really chill dude? Does that make his constant work a form of laziness, or cast his limitless capacity for empathy and forgiveness into a suspicious light? Director Elaine van Hogue grabs and twists every moment, shaping it so that it carries multiple meanings; even an extended sequence in which Matt cleans up a spilled snack feels loaded, his meticulous approach and scrupulous dedication to eradicating every crumb offering a surface joke (Look! How OCD can you get?) but shifting uneasily around less obvious - but still palpable - interpretations. (Just watching this scene can feel like a tutorial in mindfulness worthy of Thich Nhat Hahn.)

Lee sets out this play like cogent lines of argument, but in the spaces between bristle with poetry, laughter, and dancing - much of it embodied in the Person in Charge, whose duties as master of scenarios include a quick, knowing cameo in the guise of a delivery person. This is a satire of our Anglo-centric world in the same way classic stories from The Onion stand as a satire of Fox News. At first glance you might not see the humor (or you might, assuming you're not inculcated and invested in the tropes that Lee is busily thrashing), but keep staring and pretty soon, as with those novelty images of birds flying every which way and young girls that morph into crones, you start to see another perspective. That, right there, is the point.


New Repertory Theatre's production of "Straight White Men" continues through September 30 at the Movsesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.newrep.org/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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