Review: STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Sara Porkalob. Choreography by Alyza DelPan-Monley. Scenic Design by Jennifer Zeyl. Costume Design by Natalie Shih. Lighting Design by Emily Leong. Sound Design by Erin Bednarz. With Frank Boyd, Andy Buffelen, David S. Klein, Sam Turner, Nina Williams-Teramachi, Nicholas Japaul Bernard. Now through January 29, 2018 at 15th Avenue Arts/Capitol Hill.
Young Jean Lee, the very hot Korean American playwright and theater maker, is a very clever writer. Over the last few years, Ms Lee has made a name for herself in NYC theater circles as an up and coming avant garde artist unafraid to color outside the lines of traditional theater making. If there is an envelope to push, she’ll push it as she explores feminism, her own identity as an Asian American woman, gender issues, religion, and growing up in Pullman, Washington. Her work has established herself as a major name in the alternative theater landscape with a long list of accolades, prestigious grants, and performances at major arts venues around the world including the Walker in Minneapolis and Seattle’s own On the Boards.
While Ms Lee is known for her bold stagings that do not rely on traditional narratives and settings, her 2014 play STRAIGHT WHITE MEN which is getting its Seattle premiere by Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts this month, is a radical departure for the writer in the fact that the play is conventionally structured and plotted. In a long line of American dramas, Straight White Men focuses on just that…an all American Middle Class family of liberal convictions, consisting of an aging father and his three adult sons all gathering at the family homestead for Christmas celebrations. The matriarch of the family is dead and all three sons are currently single so it’s just a household of….straight white men who come into conflict over the fact that one of the men, the oldest son of the family, isn’t living up to masculine expectations. While most of the family are successful go getters: dad is a retired engineer; middle son is a banker; youngest son is an academic/writer, the oldest son Matt is an over educated, intelligent, almost 40 year old man who works as a temp for a non-profit and quietly lives at home with his father.
(Note: I do discuss this play and its plot/ending in detail, so if you hate spoilers, you might stop now…)
The family seems to accept this but when Matt bursts into sudden tears while having dinner with his father and brothers, it seems to alarm and disrupt the family dynamic. Dad and middle brother Jake dismiss the episode but the youngest brother Drew, the academic/writer, is a New Agey express your feelings kind of guy who is now worried that Matt is depressed and needs therapy. Meanwhile, Jake insists that Matt is just unselfishly removing himself from the rat race as a protest against the inequality of having so much privilege as a straight white man. Matt, who frankly DOES seem pretty depressed, rejects both of those notions and just wants to be left alone to live his uneventful life. This horrifies and angers the family who ultimately reject him.
It’s just like an Arthur Miller play but without the noble mother/martyr character or the temptress/jezebel types of women featured in most Miller plays!
While Straight White Men has a solid structure, it doesn’t really hold up for me as an important piece of dramatic literature. The father and Matt are both rather underwritten as characters while the two brothers are broadly drawn to the point of being unendurable. Despite the fact all three brothers are over the age of 30 and intelligent men, they still participate in very juvenile and rather vulgar behavior with one another…physical rough housing and childish stunts meant to annoy. The audience seemed to love it but it never rings very true or realistic and fart jokes, (which certainly have their place on the stage, as well in my own personal repertoire…) do get stale rather quickly when over done and repetitive.
That’s my chief issue with Straight White Men and quite a lot of contemporary American theater…it’s so OBVIOUS with its intent. The art of subtly seems to have been lost and both the modern writer and modern audiences want their messages REALLY LOUD AND REALLY CLEAR. Like a blow to the head but one repeated over and over again like an episode of the cartoon series Animaniacs.
So, this kind of material plays very well with the kinds of people who actually go to avant garde/indie/socially conscious theater or film or art shows…meaning the liberal, arty farty, hippy dippy, well educated and mostly white people who go to these things. It’s liberal theater preaching to the liberal choir.
But, I will say this….I think many in the audience are reading things into this play (mostly based on the play’s provocative title) that it’s about “socking it” to the straight white man. Young Jean Lee is smarter and a better writer than that and this play isn’t JUST about straight white men…it’s raising a discussion about privilege but all kinds of privilege. If anything, this play is an indictment against capitalism and how it rots human relationships. The family in “SWM” is rejecting their own kin for not living up to the demands of the capitalist society…for not fully participating to the best of their abilities to be productive and contributing. Maybe it seems like the father and brothers are rejecting Matt for not being a “man” but isn’t being a “man” just another way of saying being part of the capitalistic machine? It would only take slight changes in this play’s dialogue and you can could easily cast a quartet of black actors, or Asian actors, or Latinx actors and have it still be as relevant.
As for this specific production, it’s actually hard to judge some aspects of it because I haven’t written the script and I’m not aware of what is specified by Young Jean Lee and what the director, in this case up and coming Seattle actor/writer/director Sara Porkalob, is bringing to the table. I do know that the two “Persons in Charge” who act as a kind of team of onstage “Stage Managers” who introduce the show and help set the space in between scene changes (the one act 90 minute show is broken up into scenes indicating a shift of time in the plot) are specified by previous productions and Ms Lee’s script. They are played by…well, people who aren’t “straight white men” and to be honest, it all seems a bit gimmicky and a tad smug. (Does an audience at WET really need lectured on pronoun usage? In Seattle? At a theater space on Capitol Hill? At a Young Jean Lee play about privilege?) So is the use of supposedly “loud” abrasive music to discomfort the audience…does WET or any arty theater company liable to produce this play really think that 60 year old straight white men are coming to see this play to be “educated”? The audiences are liberal, arts lovers who can deal with that gosh durned crazy hip hop rock’n’roll!!!
There’s also an obligatory choreographed dance moment in the show, a trend that has become VERY popular in theater land as of late. I think theater directors/playwrights think this is “daring” and “new”. Eh. The very first show I directed as a theater student in college in 1984 was Albee’s The Sandbox and I opened the production with a choreographed routine to a medley of songs by The Police. (Oh, and the sandbox had generic Rice Krispies in it…arty!)
Ain’t nothing new kids. The dance number in “SWM” is fine…it’s cute, but it doesn’t particularly feel organic to the piece. (The use of choreography in WET’s superior show from earlier this year, Teh Internet is Serious Business worked far better within the context of that piece.) It just feels trendy, like the corny ending of the play which features some baleful glares from cast members (also used by WET last year in their Cherdonna’s Doll’s House) followed by the awkward non-ending/no curtain call thing that “hip” theater makers have been groovin’ on since the days of The Living Theatre with Judith Malina and Julian Beck.
Been there…done that.
As for the performances, I enjoyed Frank Boyd’s quiet, understated work as Matt. The actor does have the advantage of having performed in this play previously and has worked with Young Jean Lee’s theater company. David S. Klein makes the best of his under written role; dad is a bit of a dull, wishy washy cipher. Andy Buffelen as the bossy/banker brother and Sam Turner as Drew the feel good academic are a bit too loud for my taste. Yes, I know their characters are supposed to be big and awful but the performances don’t need to be BIGGER and AWFULER than the text suggests so that’s likely a director’s choice that I can’t get behind.
Design work is up to WET’s usual high standards though I think the gorgeous set (by Jennifer Zeyl) is a bit over affluent…it’s the family room of this well off middle class family but the house does belong to a 70 year old widower. It felt a bit too new and shiny.
Erin Bednarz’s sound design was on point with a design that was brash when it needed to be and subtle when that was indicated. I just wish the play itself, and this production would have went the more subtle route.
Who is this for?
The usual liberal, socially relevant, artsy folks who go to shows at On the Boards and WET. Probably best enjoyed by the under 40 or so branch of that group.
The music is too loud for us old folks…