Straight White Men
Helen Hayes Theater, New York City, (212) 239-6200
The title might lead you to expect that Young Jean Lee’s first play to make it to Broadway is an evisceration of white male privilege, said Sara Holdren in NYMag.com. But the veteran provocateur is “doing something much harder and much more humane.” Yes, Lee immediately reminds the audience that the domestic drama about to unfold features four straight white males created and put under a microscope by a person from outside that set (Lee is, in fact, the first Asian-American woman ever to write a play produced on Broadway). She also takes a few shots at her main characters: three 40-something brothers who have gathered to celebrate Christmas Eve with their widowed father. But Lee sees how the rules of contemporary life press on these men, and she’s sympathetic. That Straight White Men is not a mean play “feels like one of the most important things about it.”
The brothers fall so easily into playful jousting that you might forget they’re grown men, said Marilyn Stasio in Variety. They even play a house version of Monopoly, called Privilege, which their mother came up with to teach the boys to be sensitive about their advantages. The “smart and funny bro-banter” stops abruptly, though, when oldest son Matt (Paul Schneider) unexpectedly breaks into tears. His brothers struggle to offer explanations: Novelist Drew (Armie Hammer) blames clinical depression, the result of Matt’s having moved back home and gotten stuck in a low-paying job at a nonprofit. Brash banker Jake (Josh Charles) disagrees: Matt, he believes, has intentionally given up whatever ambitions he’s had to open up opportunities for the less privileged. But Matt’s breakdown unnerves them, and their expressions of concern soon become angry demands that Matt explain why he has never realized his potential.
Lee probably considers this brave writing, said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. But theatergoers, who are mostly white and liberal, “like nothing more than to be flagellated for their sins.” Lee has obliged them by painting the brothers as men who talk a good game about diversity yet remain entitled jerks. The play worked a little better three years ago, when it was rougher around the edges, staged in a tiny theater, and didn’t have the polish and shine that stars like Hammer and Charles bring, said Jesse Green in The New York Times. “That said, Straight White Men is still an exceedingly odd—and thus welcome—presence on Broadway.” Its big questions aren’t really about any one demographic group: Lee is asking how anyone can be a good person in a world where economic output is the measure of one’s worth.