The rowdy brothers of Young Jean Lee’s stimulating “Straight White Men,” which has now opened at the Public Theater, play a board game called Privilege, where Jake draws a card that says:
“What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”
Drew’s card says: “I don’t see race. Pay two hundred dollars in reparations.”
A scene like this seems to confirm what we suspected from the provocative title –that Lee, a Korean immigrant known for her avant-garde downtown theater pieces, has written and directed an acid satire of America’s de facto ruling class. But “Straight White Men,” as it turns out, is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a sympathetic, intelligent look at a family of four men, and the different ways they are adapting to a changing world.
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Lest this sound too serious, Lee’s touch is light, with many delightful moments of horsing around and witty exchanges, helped along by a superb cast, in a play that takes place during a gathering of the clan around Christmas.
The merriment disguises the nearly schematic approach she takes to the characters and their adjustment. Ed, the father (Austin Pendleton), says he was raised at a different time, when nobody questioned the traditional path – “Get married, have kids, get a job….I didn’t grow up with a sense that I had any options.” On the other hand, it was his wife, now deceased, who invented that Privilege game, adapting an old Monopoly board, and we understand that it was important to both the mother and father that their children be raised with a social conscience.
Drew (Pete Simpson), the youngest, sees himself as living out the ideals set out by his parents, by writing political novels, and teaching.
Jake (Gary Wilmes) rejects the “checkbook activism” of his father, and what he sees as the self-satisfied activities of his brother. “You can’t change the system without giving up the benefits you gain from that system.” But Jake’s solution is not to try to make a difference; Jake works as a banker and refuses to feel guilty about it. However, Lee complicates this character by making him the divorced father of two black children.
Matt (James Stanley) was the oldest, the most accomplished and the most socially conscious. He got the drama teacher fired for only casting white people in Oklahoma – cue the brothers singing a hilarious rewrite of the musical’s title song, making heavy-handed allusions to the Klu Klux Klan:
Ooooklahoma Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,
Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets,
With our pointy masks upon our heads!
“Matt was always trying to save the world,” his father says. But now Matt, despite his advanced degrees and deep competence, works as a temp and lives with his father. In what counts as the major development in this drama, he suddenly bursts into tears. Matt won’t explain why he’s so unhappy, but his brothers have their theories. Jake says: “Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead, but a white guy’s pretty hard- pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed. So Matt’s trying to stay out of the way.” Matt doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t give his own answer — and, to her credit, neither does Young Jean Lee.
Straight White Men
At the Public Theater
Written and directed by Young Jean Lee; 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
Cast: Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt) and Gary Wilmes (Jake).
Update: Straight White Men has been extended through December 14, 2014