A hot New York City playwright skewers deeply complex attitudes towards the world's newest designated social group, Straight White Men.
Young Jean Lee has had three of her plays make their Toronto debuts in the World Stage series at the Harbourfront Centre, each one radically, and intentionally, different from the last. The Shipment was a genre-mixing collection of scenes exploring black relations in America, and Untitled Feminist Show was a wordless exploration of femininity by five nude performers. In another show that hasn’t hit Toronto yet We’re Gonna Die, Lee tackles her feelings towards mortality in a rock cabaret (though you can buy the album, featuring monologues by Adam Horovitz, Kathleen Hanna, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson). The consistent element is that Lee must feel absolutely uncomfortable in the process of creating a new show, in both content and form. The results are usually very exciting to watch until they aren’t—and Lee’s discomfort becomes the audience’s.
Which leads us to her latest, and possibly most challenging work so far: a traditional living room drama starring four white male actors titled, accurately, Straight White Men. In a family home, “somewhere in the U.S. Midwest,” a recent widower Ed (Richard Riehle) has his three grown sons over for Christmas, the youngest Drew (Frank Boyd), an author and teacher, middle son Jake (Patch Darragh), a banker and divorcee, and the eldest Matt (Scott Shepherd), who’s currently temping at a non-profit and living with Ed. There’s a lot of juvenile roughhousing, teasing, eating, and even some dancing. But mostly there’s talking, venturing into “mansplaining” at points, as the men in this family try to figure out just what is wrong with Matt, why did he just cry, and why is he content with having no ambition. And the answer that Lee hints at implicates a lot more people than the title’s namesake.
In honour of Lee’s latest venture in identity politics theatre, focusing on the only demographic that wasn’t considered its own social group or label until very recently, we’re writing this review in the most old-school, traditional style possible.
The family room in this home is very white. Literally, there are white walls, a white ceiling, white carpeting, and a white fireplace. The furniture accents are mismatched finishes of wood and beige or black leather. It’s a blank slate, a “default” home, if you will, though Ed, as the sole owner, has been able to add a few personal touches: books, a dart board, and various puffin-themed accessories. Congratulations set designer David Evans Morris, it looks like a real house! But it also says a lot about this particular family. This is not a home that has seen particular wealth nor poverty—it’s just that aesthetics aren’t priorities for their disposable income (this is indirectly confirmed early on, when one of the brothers pulls out their mother’s old homemade board game Privilege, adapted from Monopoly – make a racist joke, donate $50). This is a family raised to be aware of the benefits they have just from their place of birth, their skin colour, and their gender. With this in mind they’ve been able to travel, comfortably raise three sons, and send at least one of them to Harvard. And it’s Christmas, another kind of default holiday that sends a certain population into an unruly rage if threatened, and the stockings over the fireplace signify certain heartwarming traditions this family has been able to maintain year after year.
The clothing in Straight White Men is also very good in that it looks like what real people wear. Ed wears a thick wool cardigan, Drew in a plaid or chambray button down, and Jake shows off his wealth with what looks to be a cashmere pullover and expensive running gear in another scene. Only Matt’s clothing are actually quite unpleasant to look at, especially his final outfit: an oversized pair of jeans and another oversized puke-brown T-shirt. Scott Shepherd absolutely swims in Matt’s clothes, giving the impression that he doesn’t want to be seen. Even Jake insults him with this idea, that his coworkers (including women and cultural minorities) don’t notice he’s there. But assuming that there’s a conscious reason guiding Matt’s stylistic choices, or any of his life choices for that matter, is the awkward, unsettling core of Lee’s play.
The ensemble is great because they really seemed to believe what they were saying in the moment, and said it in a very realistic way (but not too realistic, you know?). Riehle was powerful but sweet as the patriarch who worked hard to provide for his family, and loves his sons more than anything. Boyd and Darragh have great chemistry as they slap and noogie each other across their childhood living room. These three men command the stage with an elevated level of energy justified by the excitement of a beloved holiday and family reunion, which actually mirrors the energy level needed to command a stage in the first place. Shepherd, on the other hand, has a stage presence that catches you off guard—quiet, understated, a little socially awkward, actually quite normal. At times it looks a bit amateur but, of course, this takes a very careful performance and an incredible talent. His practiced ineptitude is unmissable.
Young Jean Lee is so good at destroying the audience, it’s actually her company’s M.O. (they even made T-shirts). And this work is possibly her most disruptive yet, since she works so hard to make this realistic, traditional, “Well-Made Play” so enjoyable to watch, while slipping in moments and statements that add an extra sting. Her dialogue is funny and sweet and mean, and her characters are complex: a self-hating divorced banker, self-described as “obsessed with privilege” but does nothing to stop it, in fact he works in one of the worst industries in terms of white male privilege, and is raising his biracial children to be as white as possible, (and he also actually enjoys being such an asshole)? This is a very good character, made even better because he encompasses a lot of real hypocrisies. Shepherd, who is wonderful as the play’s most sympathetic figure, is also a guy who was just connected to a big New York Times story about sexual harassment and abuse in the theatre industry. Audience: destroyed.
The biggest thing an audience member takes away is not how conflicted the modern white male psyche is, or how sad we feel for Matt who just can’t get it together, it’s how much of a straight white man we all are deep down, in terms of ambition or priority. And in an age where “White Man” is verging closer to an insult than a descriptor, Lee’s ideas are refreshing, not apologetic or sympathetic. Oh, and pretty uncomfortable.