I have to be careful talking about Straight White Men, the new Young Jean Lee play that has opened on Broadway, following an acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2014. It’s hard to imagine a play more perfectly calculated for this multicultural, gender-fluid, #MeToo moment. Lee is the first Asian-American woman ever to have her work produced on Broadway. The play opens with two “persons in charge” speaking directly to the audience, one identifying as “transcending gender,” and the other as “non-binary.” (I’m steering clear of personal pronouns here; no Twitter backlash, please.) The play is called Straight White Men — which means, of course, it’s going to hold up that unfortunate, un-evolved species to satire, or at least to a kind of anthropological condescension.
Straight White Men has gotten mostly rave reviews, as has Lee’s earlier off-Broadway work (which, alas, I have not seen). But I had a lot of trouble with this play. Lee’s heart is in the right place, and her theme of white entitlement is certainly apt, especially in the Trump era. But this is a badly written play, directed (by Anna D. Shapiro) with a startling lack of subtlety, and there is hardly a moment in it that doesn’t seem forced or fake. It’s agenda-driven playwriting at its most annoying.
The action (one act, 90 minutes) revolves around three 40-ish brothers and their widowed father, together for a Christmas Eve celebration in their old family rec room. The brothers had a progressive upbringing, trained from childhood to recognize and be suspicious of their own privileged status. We know this because, not 10 minutes into the evening, two of the brothers happen upon an old Monopoly-style board game called Privilege, which they play just long enough to establish the play’s political orientation and get a few easy laughs. (One Chance card reads: “What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”)
One brother is a banker, one a novelist, the third a low-level clerk at a community organization. But who can believe in these people as actual siblings? Half the time they engage in the kind of teasing-roughousing-in-joke-sharing behavior that is drawn less from real life than from some cliched writer’s conception of male bonding. (Dad even brings out Christmas pajamas and forces his sons to change into them.) The rest of the time they seem to be learning about each other in the same way the audience does — through clunky expository dialogue. Typical exchange: “When is your novel coming out?” “March.” “Will it be the same kind of thing? What did the Times critic call it? A ‘radical attack on the crassness of American materialism’?”
The play spells out everything like this; it’s all talk, talk talk. “I’ll get some plates,” says one brother, as he goes to get plates for their Chinese takeout dinner. “Let’s pull the table a little closer,” says another, as they pull the coffee table closer to the couch. (Might I suggest that the stage action precludes the need for these two lines?) What passes for a storyline involves the underachieving older brother, who has moved back in with his father, seems depressed, and gets to express the playwright’s objectifying analysis of the guilt-ridden entitled class.
It may well be (as Jesse Green suggests in his Times review) that Straight White Men worked better downtown, in a more stylized production that doesn’t play like a bad sitcom — with the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer and Good Wife heartthrob Josh Charles overacting in key roles. And it may well be, as a recent Times Magazine profile proclaimed, that Young Jean Lee is “one of the most fearless experimental playwrights of her generation.” But Straight White Men doesn’t come close to convincing me.