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Straight White Men

Broadway debuts of Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider is in the first play by an Asian American woman, Young Jean Lee, a smart Second Stage Theater production with a talented creative team and cast.

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Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in a scene from “Straight White Men” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

While the 1% of wealthiest Americans remains outside the fray, the vast majority of us have been questioning and arguing over what happened–and continues happening–to keep the lopsided statistics in place. There is also a group of us who are financially comfortable enough to just get on with their lives, without questioning the privileged few. Welcome to the Norton household, including father Ed and his three sons, in a new play by Young Jean Lee, Straight White Men.

Then again, the Nortons are very concerned with privilege in these United States: their late mother even re-invented Monopoly with the name of Privilege, a board game which is brought out during the three-day period we spend with them, when they are visiting their father for Christmas.

Matt (Paul Schneider), the eldest brother, is actually living with his father, some years after he graduated from Harvard, and he’s saving money to pay off his student loans. Jake (Josh Charles), is the middle child, and he’s also a wealthy banker – exactly everything his mother didn’t want him to be. Drew (Armie Hammer), the youngest, is a successful author and a writing professor.

Though the four of them have assembled at Ed’s home for Christmas, the fact that Matt, the most credentialed, is also the least successful–he’s working in a temp job copying documents for a community-service organization–becomes the crux of the story.

Kate Bornstein, Armie Hammer and Ty Defoe in a scene from “Straight White Men” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

As designed by Todd Rosenthal, Straight White Men is literally framed with a large wooden frame, beneath which the play’s title appears in bold large letters–like a work of art hanging in a museum. But Ed’s basement family room–in which the action plays out, over three acts–is highly realistic, as are the dead-on costumes, designed by Suttirat Larlarb, the Chinese food that’s consumed with chopsticks out of cardboard containers, and the seemingly endless supply of bottles of beer.

But as realistic as the play itself is, it also has other surreal elements hovering over it. It is, for instance, introduced by “Person in Charge 1” (Kate Bornstein), who is specifically a non-binary transgender person, and “Person in Charge 2” (Ty Defoe), who is a Native American from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. “My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means transcending gender in the Ojibwe language,” explains Person in Charge 2. This helps establish Young Jean Lee’s ironic intentions with the play’s title, putting the four straight white men at the center in the context of today’s larger world.

As they apologize for the terribly loud music that greets us as we arrive in the auditorium, before the play proper begins, the “people-in-charge” prove empathetic and concerned about our feelings. This is in sharp contract with the four main characters in the play, who observe the fourth wall and indicate no awareness of our presence. Is this part of a larger message that “single white men” are selfish and narcissistic?

Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, and Paul Schneider in a scene from “Straight White Men” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Given how physically playful the brothers are with each other–and with their father–Straight White Men is that rare play that even has a credited choreographer, Faye Driscoll. In addition to making good on the promise he made in last year’s Call Me By Your Name, that he was an actor to be watched–and not only because he’s so attractive–Armie Hammer proves especially deft with Driscoll’s many maneuvers, like leaping on or off the sofa or the coffee table.

If Josh Charles is also recognizable from The Good Wife, his Jake, here, proves a viable character as well. But it’s Paul Schneider (Parks and Recreation, anyone?) who deserves and earns our sympathy as the underachiever Matt, whose father even comes after him in the end, ostensibly for his own good.

Whether stuffing the stockings with insignificant gifts or providing his sons with plaid pajamas on Christmas Eve, Stephen Payne is a sturdy and reliable Ed. They’ve all been directed with a canny realism by Anna D. Shapiro, a realism appropriate to Young Jean Lee’s script. In addition to everything else it is, Straight White Men is the first play by an Asian American woman to arrive on Broadway, and it’s doing so in a smart production with a talented creative team and cast.

Straight White Men (through September 9, 2018)

Second Stage Theater

The Helen Hayes Theater

240 West 44th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-257-0427 or visit http://www.2st.com

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (82 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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