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.
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?
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