Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through March 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I can’t quite decide whether to be more intrigued or irritated by Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men.” Often dubbed “experimental,” the New York-based Korean-American playwright directed the Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre herself, and the acting is topnotch. But there’s no question that she’s manipulating the audience with a heavy hand.
Lee combines the stereotypical male group of the title with an equally “mainstream” theatrical form, the naturalistic three-act play—then deliberately sets about subverting our expectations about both. Her goal is satire, I suspect, but she also seems to have some genuine affection for her characters and wants to say something serious about privilege and how it can be confusing even to those who have it.
The most obvious subversion of the genre is the frame she creates. We enter to “Yankin,” a raunchy hip-hop number recorded by Lady, blaring at ear-splitting levels while a pair of gender-fluid performers (Elliott Jenetopulos, Will Wilhelm) hand out ear plugs to those who want them. When the painful noise eventually subsides, they explain that it was deliberately chosen to give those who didn’t like it a taste of what it is like to live in a world that doesn’t accommodate their needs. At the play’s start, and between scenes, they also position the actors on stage almost as if they were curators of an anthropological museum exhibit, a not-so-subtle reminder that the outsiders are in control. And the production is divided into Act I, II, and III, although it only runs about 90 minutes and has no intermission.
Set in a mostly beige, middle-class, Midwestern family room designed by David Evans Morris with a plethora of accouterments (books, old games, etc.) and lit by Sarah Hughey, “Straight White Men” opens on Christmas Eve. Jake (Madison Dirks), a divorced banker, and his younger brother Drew (Ryan Hallahan), a hotshot author and college professor, have arrived for the holiday and are shooting the breeze (Jake also is frenetically playing video games) while waiting for their father, Ed (Alan Wilder), a retired engineer and widower, and the oldest brother, Matt (Brian Slaten), to return. The smartest and most promising of the three, Matt graduated from Harvard, then spent 10 years in graduate school at Berkeley and another 10 in low-level jobs. Now in his 40s, he’s moved back into his father’s house and is working as a temp making copies at a social service organization, while doing the housework and helping dad.
After Matt and Ed return with a fake Christmas tree, there’s a Christmas Eve dinner of takeout Chinese food eaten straight from the cartons, a bit of tree decorating, the ugly pajamas Ed makes everyone put on, and plenty of ribbing and rough-housing, along with locker room-worthy jokes and reminiscing about the good and not-so-good old days. Once together, the boys revert to holiday and childhood patterns of behavior.
But these are not the working-class, racist and sexist stereotypes often conjured up by the phrase “straight white men.” They’ve been brought up—especially by their mother—to be conscious of and appreciate their advantages and position of power. She even re-purposed a Monoply game as “Privilege” with some hilarious penalty cards. And we learn that in high school Matt protested a production of “Oklahoma!” that was cast without any black actors. His take-off on one of the songs, sung and danced by the brothers, is another of the very funny bits of business.
Matt also creates a crisis of sorts when he starts crying during the dinner. Much of Act II and Act III, set on Christmas Day and the day after, are devoted to the others hypothesizing about what caused this behavior and advising him what to do about it. Jake, high-energy and success-oriented, thinks his older brother has intentionally martyred himself to live up to his dead mother’s high standards of social consciousness. Drew is convinced Matt is clinically depressed and would benefit from therapy, as he himself has. Ed, who clearly loves all his sons and enjoys having Matt live there, believes Matt feels burdened by his student loans and even offers to pay them off.
But Matt refuses money he says he hasn’t earned and denies almost everything his brothers say about him. He insists he’s not unhappy, likes his job, and just wants to find a way to be “useful,” something he hasn’t been able to do yet. They stage a sort of intervention in the form of a mock interview to prove their point, but he’s not about to give in, and the arguments escalate.
Matt’s failure to live up to his potential is an affront to the basic tenants of the straight white male world, and his refusal to give reasons for it that are in accord with the theories of Jake, Drew, and even Ed makes him a loser in their eyes—and makes them angry. They can’t accept that he’s different and doesn’t feel the need to change, so they essentially reject him.
Lee seems to be questioning the value placed on success and fulfilling your potential in our society, but she’s also defying some theatrical conventions. We expect “Straight White Men” to have a plot and to build to some big revelation that leads to a resolution. It doesn’t. Instead, it is a character study of individuals within a family and their interactions, which are acutely observed and noted with some insights along the way.
For me, this only goes so far. Some of the boys’ antics—the dancing around, mean teasing, silly business—became rather repetitive and tedious, and in the end, I wanted to feel enlightened in some way but didn’t.