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Straight White Men

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in Straight White Men at the Helen Hayes Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus


Straight White Men


                             By Eugene Paul


What in hell? Oh. Provocation. Getting us, the audience, off on the wrong foot with that yowling souped up caterwauling.  And that curtain? Entirely silver mylar streamers constantly in motion as if half a dozen strippers were ready to wriggle their way through, bumping and grinding with the so called music? So where are the straight white men as advertised? Straight white men would be a relief. Ahaaa….Playwright Young Jean Lee isn’t done setting us up. She sends in the clowns.



Kate Bornstein & Ty Defoe


Out in front of the shimmery curtain come Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe . Oh, lud, is it going to take two of them to tell us to turn off our cell phones and hearing aids which have been rendered totally deadened?  No?  They’re the Persons in Charge? Here to explain that they are not straight white men? The elucidation is not necessary but it’s funny. In those outfits?  Costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, who has this show nailed head to toe is wittily telling us something.  So are the Persons in Charge, funny one liners about sexual identity.  Oh,, come on.  Enough already. And, snap, the shimmery curtain whisks away, lighting designer Donald Holder gives us a foreboding limbo moment,  Persons in Charge lead actors Josh Charles and Armie Hammerin in the dimness to that inevitable front facing couch, then disappear, lights come up, and fortyish Jake (Josh Charles) is intently pursuing a video game he sees  somewhere right over our heads.


He and brother Drew (Armie Hammer) are in their childhood family room in their father’s house -- you know, half a floor down from the rest of the house -- next to the laundry room. Very Middle America.  Set designer Todd Rosenthal is ruthless. Three stockings are hung –where else –from the mantel over the fireplace. Does that ever say Christmas for you. And baby brother Drew is making a goddam pest of himself trying to drive middle brother Jake crazy lousing up his game. That’s what you do: revert to childhood when you come home to the old house.


Dad (Stephen Payne) and oldest brother Matt (Paul Schneider) come in from the garage through the laundry room carrying an artificial Christmas tree. In two sections.  Lots of horsing around. Fake tree now that Mom is gone? Only the bottom section lights up.  Big challenge. Director Anna D. Shapiro, with the absolutely vital assistance of choreographer Faye Driscoll and fight director Thomas Schall unfolds her endless cache of bygone behaviors her  marvelous, marvelous company oozes into seamlessly, we smile and laugh and hug them to ourselves trying to ignore the thread of desperation.  It’s around now we notice that that handsome frame around the entire stage opening has a brass plaque at bottom saying STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.  Just like a diorama in the local history museum, all the dummies perfectly captured in costume.  It becomes vivid when Dad insists that Drew squeeze in with the rest of them on that  frumpish couch  as they all eat Chinese food – the boys use chopsticks, not Dad – and watch TV.  Until Matt silently breaks down crying.


Act break. Persons in Charge observe their choreographed set changers set change, get out of the way for act build up of niggling worries about Matt, coruscatingly clever, funny not funny. We are starting to ache.


Kate Bornstein, Armie Hammer & Ty Defoe


Next act sets up in that familiar limbo light  with Person in Charge leading youngest son Drew to couch, positioning him prone, jaw open, asleep, lights come up after stage crew goes about its efficient,  choreographed resetting and we’re on again.  Dad has sneaked in stuffing stockings with same old same olds, tickling us.  Drew awake is seriously distressed about big brother Matt.  He’s the oldest, the smartest, never had a career like Drew and Jake. What’s wrong with him? Matt does all these helping temp type jobs, came back to live with Dad after Mom died, cooks, cleans, what is the matter with him? Jake got married to a black girl had two kids, got divorced, is a hard nosed banker. Drew went into therapy, got turned around, is writing, teaching, chasing women, but Matt?  All those brains?  What’s wrong with him? Matt, who has been just as crazy a kid as his brothers this holiday, except for that cleaning up, taking care of stuff thing he does, doesn’t know. He likes to help, that’s all.


 And we all experience a shudder of recognition, those of us who have assumed the expected roles, those of us who have not.  Playwright Lee has, indeed, been relentless. Identity? Male roles?  Female roles? Any roles  at all?  Persons in Charge?  Who are we? Who we want to be?  Who we assume to be?  Who everyone wants us to be? One by one, Drew, and Jake, and finally, even Dad, reject Matt, leaving him alone, in the limbo light, until, with a snap of the fingers, a Person in Charge brings down the shivery , shimmery silvery curtain.


  It’s a wonderful play. Certainly on a par with Three Tall Women, and A Doll’s House 2 of recent reclame, especially with this brilliant production. Playwright Young Jean Lee has a lot to say and brilliantly knows how to say it.. Get ready to brace for what’s next.


Straight White Men. At the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street.  Tickets: $69-$149. 212-239-6200.  90 min. Thru Sept.9.