By Patrick Hurley
What does white privilege look like? Playwright Young Jean Lee not only wants to show us what it looks like, but she places it into such sharp focus in her hilarious new play Straight White Men, playing now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, that the result is a stunningly authentic and honest piece of naturalism that beautifully explores the nature of sibling and paternal relationships.
Centering on Ed (Richard Riehle) a widower, and his three sons Drew (Frank Boyd), Jake (Gary Wilmes), and Matt (Brian Slaten) the story takes place over the course of three days, starting on Christmas Eve. It plays out like the deconstruction of family drama. While the brothers interact with their father, and each other personal issues slowly come to the surface for all of the men, and the way in which they choose to handle or not handle these issues is directly correlated to the archetypes of white patriarchal society and what is expected of men in that society. Signs of strength and weakness are as clear as night and day, and machismo is expressed as an acceptable form of emotional nuance. it is through these universal archetypes that Young Jean Lee’s play reaches for something unexpected, something more nuanced. The three brothers torment one another, are almost cruel to each other, picking fights and physically going at it at every turn. And while it’s aggressive and over-the-top, it’s also playful and an expression of endearment. Anyone who grew up with brothers can probably relate to the dynamic between these men.
When Matt, the eldest, however starts to exhibit signs of depression, more specifically when he breaks down and cries in the middle of dinner for seemingly no reason, the other three men are faced with the awkward and confounding situation of how to deal with it. This propels the action for the rest of the play. It becomes an exercise in expectation versus reality, where all of these men bring their own ideas of being a privileged member of society, and how that carries with it its own burdens and expectations. It becomes an argument about conformity, norms, and the idea that deviation or anyone labeled “other” is somehow outside the same realm of responsibility as someone who appears to be privileged.
This play tackles big ideas in a very small setting. Young Jean Lee’s script uses archetypes to shine a light on a group who historically have always had a light shining on them. What she does differently, however, is she allows for the honesty of the characters to embrace or reject themselves for what they are, to have them overtly aware of who they are and what that means socially and privately, and this makes the idea of writing a play about straight white men, in a style usually held for repressed minorities, almost completely novel.
Under Young Jean Lee’s direction, the play has a wonderful freedom in the staging. The roughhousing between the brothers feels completely natural, as do all of the interactions that the men have. There is a familial air of comfort between them that can only transpire from a director that allows for the actors to feel safe in the creative environment that she has built for them.
The cast is exceptional all across the board. As Matt, Brian Slaten gives a wonderfully gentle performance. He is wounded and he carries that with him even in the moments of physicality with his brothers. Richard Riehle, as Ed, is completely endearing throughout, and packs quite an emotional punch in the final minutes of the play.
Gary Wilmes, as Jake, has the most thankless role. He’s arrogant, sexist, and fully aware of both, which could just come across as bombastic like a caricature. Mr. Wilmes never lets this happen. Rather, he uses the moments in-between, when Jake is reflective or alone on stage to show his vulnerability, to show his humanity. So much so, that by the end we no longer see him as anything but a guy who is doing what he thinks he has to in order to survive. He elicits empathy and that’s not an easy feat. Frank Boyd gives a wonderful performance as Drew. He is perhaps the only character that the audience can hold onto as any sort of proxy. Mr. Boyd infuses him with humor and heart, and allows for his deep love and affection for his brothers and father to come the closest to the surface. Because of this, his final moments on stage are truly earned and heartfelt.
This production succeeds on every level. From the beautifully realized set, designed by David Evans Morris, to the amusing scene changes where stage hands move through the set resetting and getting things just right for the next scene. It’s kind of a post-modern Brechtian element that makes this production not quite realism. It’s hyper-theatrical and it works to pull us out of the play and back into the reality that we are in a theater watching a production. A funny, touching, confounding, and ultimately profound production that has something new to say on the very old subject of straight white men. And that is definitely worthy of our attention.
Straight White Men
Written and Directed by Young Jean Lee
Presented in Collaboration with Center For the Art of Performance at UCLA
November 20-December 20, 2015
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232