Meaningless meandering slows ‘Straight White Men’
WATERTOWN – The conventional wisdom going in was that playwright Young Jean Lee was about to make a powerful statement about white privilege in her play “Straight White Men,” now being presented at the New Repertory Theatre.
And she is, to a point. In fact, the characters will at one point actively engage in a game called “Privilege” that is a re-working of Monopoly, and allows the characters to self-examine the role it plays in their lives.
And at least one of the characters will how the concept of white privilege is actively at work in his own career and is keeping down women and people of color.
Korean-American playwright Lee recently became the first Asian-American female playwright to be presented on Broadway with a production of “Straight White Men” as the Helen Hayes Theatre followed a previous off-Broadway run.
Theater-goers entering before the show will encounter deafening, sexuality-explicit, rap music blaring into the audience at deafening levels. deafening rap music , and you might want to consider ear plugs or entering just a few minutes before the show begins.
There they will encounter an emcee of sorts, a non-binary character called The Person in Charge (Dev Blair), who is front and center and whose attire includes silver jacket, shorts, silver sneakers, dangling earrings and a necklace.
They – the preferred pronoun for a non-binary person – dance onstage and also patrol the aisles of the theater, speaking to audience members before the show.
Addressing theater-goers as the production begins, The Person in Charge allows that the music might have made some theater-goers “uncomfortable.”
“It can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” said Blair, the words dripping with sarcasm.
It is all part of the same environment Lee is creating, saying there are many of us who are non-white or non-binary who have been encountering such situations all our lives. How does it make you feel?
OK, got that.
And then as The Person in Charge takes charge, a family drama unfolds.
Four white men in a Midwest – a widower named Ed (Ken Cheeseman) and his three grown sons – are celebrating Christmas Eve in the father’s apartment.
Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.) is a recently-divorced banker who is the first to admit that not only does white privilege exist, but he has seen it in action in his own job and how it effects women and people of color.
Drew (Michael Kaye) is a novelist and teacher while Matt (Shelley Bolman) showed the most promise growing up, and graduating from Harvard but since then has gradually retreated from life to the point where he is living with his father and working a temp job at a non-profit. Shelly Bolman’s Matt also tries to make the home as clean and comfortable as possible, relentlessly cleaning and picking up,
The family engages in some quirky family traditions – holiday pajamas, egg nog, stockings and such.
But there is also an extended period of pranks, name-calling and other puerile fun. If you are entranced by a bunch of grown men gibing each other wedgies and calling each other by childhood names, fine, but it always felt forced.
It wasn’t particularly entertaining or funny, and why Lee chose to go that route for so long remains one of the more puzzling aspects of the production.
It isn’t until a meal of Chinese food that some real dramatic conflict begins to emerge as Matt suddenly begins crying in the middle of the meal.
It’s a is a signal for his brothers and father to begin dissecting him and his behavior and his disturbing lack of achievement.
A theory is concocted that by deliberately underachieving and working at a menial job Matt is making a political statement.
The poking and prodding of Matt eventually becomes something akin to a witch hunt.
There is nothing wrong with theater-goers made to feel uncomfortable at times, as Lee has done. At its best, theater is all about that. But it is another to not be moved.. And what seemed like endless meandering for much of the 90 minutes left me unmoved.
And while Bolman’s performance of the lost soul is compelling, it almost feels lost in the wilderness by the time Lee gets there.
The play will eventually reach a denouement with some substance, but the end result is an oddly unsatisfying meal.
The New Repertory Theatre production of “Straight White Men.” Written by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Elaine Van Hogue. At the Mainstage Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts through Sept. 30. newrep.org.