Review by Rebecca M. Alvin
Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men began as an experiment. The Asian-American playwright began by talking with people who were not straight and white and male about what they wanted from that least oppressed group of people who suddenly find themselves under intense scrutiny. The resulting play centers on an average white liberal family: three men and their widowed father who come together for Christmas. But when the eldest brother Matt (Mike Mihm), a Harvard graduate, radical leftist, and accomplished social justice professional breaks down in tears, the testosterone-fueled get-together takes a turn.
Matt has returned to live with his father (Mark Hofmaier), and unlike his successful brothers Jake (Andy McCain), a big-time banker, and Drew (Carl Howell), a highly regarded author and professor, he is content to work menial temp jobs for local nonprofits despite his experience and potential for “greatness.” Matt’s father is extremely supportive, as are his brothers, in their way, but all three are dumbfounded by Matt’s rejection of material, professional, and social success. Amongst themselves, they debate his reasons. Jake theorizes it’s an intentional rejection of his white privilege and that he is stepping out of the way in order to allow women and minorities to get ahead in his field, thereby engaging in a truly revolutionary act. Drew, on the other hand, is certain that Matt is depressed and victim to “a sick way of thinking.” And their father insists it’s about the burden of his student loan debt. But when they finally confront Matt about it, it turns out all of them are wrong.
As you enter the theater, blaring hip-hop music by Cardi B., with graphic lyrics, overwhelms the space, in the playwright’s attempt to unnerve the usual theater audiences. Then two announcers introduce the play, a gay Black man (Freddy Biddle) and a genderqueer, non-binary white person (Eleanor Philips) in a somewhat gimmicky introduction. The characters are then physically placed in the set by these announcers, a nod to the artifice of theater.
Under the direction of Sasha Bratt, this production is well-acted and staged. But the setup is somewhat misleading. While identity and political shifts are certainly the backdrop, it is ultimately more about notions of productivity and success in our society. These issues come up in the awkward context of shifting sociopolitical dynamics as the traditionally powerful straight white males grapple with their need to make space for others. These are not evil, racist, ultra-conservative Republicans, but they are upper-middle-class Americans. They are liberal, educated, and highly aware of their privilege. They just don’t know what they’re supposed to do about it.
This is not feel-good, self-righteous theater. It asks us to think beyond the identity politics it signals in its title, to more universal issues in society. And that is very much the intention.
Straight White Men is onstage at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Rte. 6, Tuesdays – Saturdays through June 24 with one Monday performance on June 20. All shows are at 8 p.m. For tickets and information call 508.349.9428 or visit what.org.