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Straight White Men Review
Having brilliantly helmed the epitome of dysfunctional family plays, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” Anna D. Shapiro was an inspired choice to bring Young Jean Lee’s often funny, thought-provoking “Straight White Men” to Broadway (now at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater), even if she wasn’t able to solve the work’s central problems.

First, this savvy director’s instinct for casting creates a completely believable unit of the Nelson clan, which is headed by good-natured patriarch Ed (a slightly tentative Stephen Payne) who now resides in his lifelong home (perfectly designed by Todd Rosenthal) with oldest son Matt (an extremely moving Paul Schneider), a 40-something former academic now working a temp job at a local non-profit and keeping house for the twosome.

The pair are reunited, per tradition, on Christmas Eve with middle brother Jake (the excellent Josh Charles in full-out master-of-the-universe mode), a very successful banker who nonetheless espouses some half-assed liberal guilt about having made it to the top and failing to help the oppressed (and who, I think, we’re supposed to give some brownie points to for having married –and divorced – an African-American woman, though I imagine she couldn’t deal with his womanizing ways), and youngest sibling Drew (Hollywood heartthrob Armie Hammer in an auspicious stage debut), an acclaimed, well-meaning novelist who has been supposedly sensitized by therapy, but still hasn’t conquered his biggest issue: his Peter Pan-like, if not downright babyish behavior.

Shapiro’s sure hand makes a lot of the show’s early going more enjoyable than it might be as we watch its almost endless boys-will-be-boys rough-housing and reruns of childhood rituals – which include briefly playing a board game called “Privilege, created by their now-dead mother, to remind them how fortunate they are to be white, upper-middle-class men, and the reenactment of a scathingly funny new version of the title song of “Oklahoma” that Matt wrote in high school as a protest.

In fact, Shapiro also convinces us (at least temporarily) of the necessity of the show’s new prologue: 20-or-so-minutes of blaring rap music, followed by the onstage appearance of actors Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe (as themselves, but dressed in almost alien-like costumes by Suttratt Larlarb), a pair of performers who identify respectively as non-binary and transcending gender. An incredibly appealing duo, they explain how their presence and the music are specifically designed to make many in the audience feel uncomfortable, just as they are meant to feel uncomfortable in society. As the play progress, the pair also silently reappear in scenes, manipulating the set and characters, as to give the impression that they are in control of the action. Like much of “Straight White Men,” all of this is simultaneously somewhat clever and somewhat heavy-handed.

That sentiment goes double for how I feel about the periodic spouting/lecturing of what are clearly Lee’s thoughts on white privilege, the mistreatment of other races and other societal ills – all of which are too often awkwardly placed in the mouths of her male characters. (For the record, Lee is a Korean-born, American-raised woman.) Everything Lee has to say is absolutely true – and may need to be heard by a monied Broadway audience -- but none of it is (to my mind) is particularly profound or novel; honestly, I’ve heard far more intelligent discourse on these subjects on many episodes of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” During one heated exchange, when Drew yells at Ed, “You sound like an undergrad,” I wanted to stand up and applaud.

But more than anything, I wish that someone along the way had seriously reshaped this entire, 90-minute script, since it takes way too long to get to its main point. Matt is willingly (or so he claims) refusing to claim his privilege; despite a degree from Harvard and 10 years of Ph.D. work at Stanford, he doesn’t want a career, his father’s money (to repay what we’re told are crippling student loans), or presumably, a loving relationship with either a man or a woman. He wants merely to be useful (which he feels he is doing by making copies at a non-profit and helping Ed), something that the rest of the straight white men around him simply can’t and won’t accept as his destiny.

A longer, more nuanced discussion of this complex issue (and perhaps an acknowledgment by Lee that maybe Matt really does need therapy or medication, which she seems to dismiss) would really help. In fact, it would make “Straight White Men” more of a must-see than a maybe-sit-through.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 7/24/2018
Closing 9/9/2018

Theatre Info
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036