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Theatre Review: Straight White Men attempts to address privilege

Lisa Much Lisa Much Theatre Review: Straight White Men attempts to address privilegeYoung Jean Lee’s latest work STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Photo: Blaine Davis
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I recall a specific moment in January 2012 when a friend and I, after seeing a show where four white straight male characters talk for two hours, ranted about the prevalence of this type of production at that moment in time. We even made a joke of it, “I need more white, Protestant males in this!” Needless to say, when looking through the Wexner Center for the Arts spring season, I laughed at the aptly titled Straight White Men.

Commissioned in part by the Wexner Center, Straight White Men made its world premiere in Columbus last night by the illustrious New York-based Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. Known for experimental work, the company produces Lee’s plays, which she also directs. With Straight White Men, she dances into a different territory to write a straight play—one that uses a linear story arch with conventional design.

This technique proves glaringly obvious upon walking into the space, thanks to David Evan Morris’s hyper-realistic set that looks exactly like my aunt and uncle’s ranch style interior. His astounding attention to the mundane provides for countless nuances to take in. Chris Kuhl contributes to this with seamlessly realistic lighting design. Elizabeth Sargent’s near endless list of props and set dressings contribute an insurmountable wealth of detail to the production, and Enver Chakartash’s costumes look great on the titular characters. All four of these elements combine for a flawless effect of sitting in someone’s suburban home. Kudos to Chris Giarmo and Jamie McElhinney for the fantastic sound design and composition as well. In short, all the design is superb.

The show occurs near Christmas as three middle aged sons and their father get together for the holiday. Jake and Drew (the middle and youngest, respectively) visit their father in the home in which they grew, where their eldest brother (Matt) currently resides. A fair portion of the play devotes itself to exposition, in a potentially not necessary way. We witness the four reminisce, joke, and briefly chat about career, family, or therapy options. Many short spurts of statements come from each of the four, but we learn little rather than get a feel of the characters and a few jokes. This makes the first act feel rather sluggish and sets the tone of a conventional play about white, straight men and their problems. Hopefully, the language can be honed to combat that.

After the first act, the show takes a short break in which two female run crew members take several minutes under dim light to clean up the messy room and set for the next act. The audience remains seated under dim lighting with a halfway lit stage, making this tedious transition a clear component of the show. Perhaps the production seeks to say something further about male privilege, as these two women straighten and prepare or possibly it served as a simple solution rather than offer an intermission too quickly. It feels odd though.

She then uses the final two acts to delve into the repetitive meat of the play. Matt, the eldest, smartest, most socially responsible member of the bunch, works a mediocre, temp job, owes oodles in student loans from an incomplete PhD, and lives in his father’s house. This causes much contention for the other members of the family, leading to fights, endless conversations, and emotional outbursts. Lee uses all this holiday hullabaloo to promote her premise: what would happen if people lost their greatest privilege—not thinking about their privilege.

James Stanley plays a captivatingly reserved Matt, a bit awkward and shy to take up any space, yet a very present person. He seems like a genuinely nice guy, quite smart, but quiet. His brothers, Jake (Scott Shepherd) and Drew (Pete Simpson), serve as silent springs of emotion that swell until they burst, seemingly out of nowhere. Both offer their advice, insights, and perspective into Matt’s “condition,” while representing two distinct archetypes with straight male characters: the business man, money-hungry, go-getter (aptly portrayed by Shepherd) and the self-loathing, aware yet insecure artist-type (Simpson). Austin Pendleton delightfully plays an old man, part Willy Loman, part Martin Crane. Through his heart-warming yet naïve good intentions, we see a third archetypical male character: the well-meaning father who wants his sons to succeed, whatever that means.

Stanley seems to play the only non-archetype character. Matt represents no colloquial straight white man, because the premise, while interesting, seems a touch unbelievable. His brothers accuse him of living his life (or not having a life) because of his conscientious towards non-privileged people. “That’s what happens when a white man majors in Ethnic Studies.”

My question then, even if it proved possible, who would completely renounce privilege if it did not ensure equality for all? If society did not change because of one man’s choice to “make it” through his own means, completely ignoring his race, sex, orientation, religious affiliation, and nationality, why would he do this? In fact, she poses these questions in the show.

I understand what she attempts to do with this production; it stands as a thought experiment regarding privilege, but I fail to see the purpose. As the play states, “You can’t be sorry for your existence.” If it spurs conversation, nothing new will emerge.

Straight White Men runs through April 13 at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts Performance Space, 1871 N. High Street and plays Fri.-Sat. At 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. More information can be found online at wexarts.org.

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