Now extended thru March 26
As necessary as it is entertaining
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|Straight White Men|
Review by Catey Sullivan
The titular men of Young Jean Lee’s 90-minute drama have it all. In addition to the trifecta of ruling majority traits, brothers Jake, Drew and Matt are handsome, well-educated and part of a close-knit family where they have always been treasured.
But a fissure erupts among the siblings as they gather at their father’s house for Christmas. Jake (Madison Dirks) and Drew (Ryan Hallahan) are happy over-achievers – a banker and a widely read author, respectively – bringing in big money and making their mark on the world. Matt (Brian Slaten), by contrast, seems deeply troubled.
Despite a fancy education and a sterling resume filled with social justice activism, Matt is working as a temp in a menial office job. He’s living with his father (Alan Wilder). He’s not dating. He’s not looking for a better job. He has no plans to move into his own place. Midway through Chinese takeout on Christmas Eve, he bursts into tears.
Drew is appalled, and determined to find out why Matt has given up any aspiration of making something of himself. Jake takes different view, and sees Matt as a noble martyr; A man woke to his own privilege who is conscientiously removing himself from the world in order to make room for someone who doesn’t have the advantages of a white, cis, hetero male.
Lee directs her own work for Steppenwolf, and the result is 90 minutes that keep you engrossed, at times laughing, at others roiling with anger at an institutionalized status quo she so astutely portrays. The dialogue is both hilarious and sharp as it explores just how high the deck is stacked in favor of the Jakes, Drews and Matts of the world. Peel back the onion layers of humor, and Straight White Men becomes a stinging commentary on the unfairness of the world.
Lee also exposes how even the most progressive of straight white men are inherently part of the problem. Jake, Matt and Drew were raised to be socially conscious feminists. Instead of Monopoly, they played “Privilege” (choose the iron token and you get 50 Unappreciated Domestic Labor bonus points). They protested their high school’s all-white production of Oklahoma. Matt formed a club devoted to overthrowing capitalism. But for all that, the brothers remain an entrenched part of the patriarchy, masters of the universe by dint of their skin color, sexuality, heteronormative gender identities and – as Jake makes clear in a devastating monologue – by the way they choose to behave.
Straight Young Men is almost purely dialogue driven. Not much actually happens over the three-day Christmas holiday, other than a lot of brotherly roughhousing and a drunken dance party that’s an interlude of sheer, rambunctious joy. The plot is propelled by words rather than big, dramatic actions, and Lee’s cast navigates the dialogue with the effortless familiarity of family members falling into their proscribed roles.
Hallahan, Dirks and Slaten are the bro-iest bros this side of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon – with a big distinction: Instead of being clueless and willfully ignorant, Jake, Drew and Matt at least try to keep an awareness of their standing in the world. The actors capture the dynamic of three brothers whose shared experiences let them communicate with a shared shorthand. As their father, Wilder is spot-on as a man who loves his children dearly, and who is both exasperated by their shortcomings and worried about where those shortcomings will lead them.
Lee’s ending is certain to leave many with a sense of incompleteness – nobody could accuse her of tying thing up with a tidy bow. It’s a fine line between unfinished and provocatively open-ended, and Lee strays too close to the former.
Despite the title, Straight White Men is not solely the domain of straight white men. The show opens with two trans actors playing versions of themselves (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm). In addition to giving the usual directive to silence phones and note the exit signs, the pair delivers a brief lecture on their pronouns and the very existence of privilege. It’s a bit condescending – the stated assumption is that the audience will be baffled by the singular use of “they,” “theirs” and “them” feels like an unfair generalization. So does the presumption that the pre-show music will probably make people uncomfortable.
Lee equates the discomfort the audience might feel with the music with the discomfort experienced daily by those who are marginalized by a world largely built by and catering to straight white men. It’s a fair point. But starting your show by having two actors gaze out at the audience and then assert that the assembled ticket holders clearly aren’t the kind of people who like rap or hip-hop feels like an unfair judgement.
Elliott and Will open each scene by leading the other actors to their marks, placing their arms just so, and then silently exiting. The underlying meaning to the pantomime is open to interpretation. Maybe Lee is emphasizing the silence and the invisibility that trans folk deal with. Maybe she’s creating a commentary on how easy it is to manipulate straight white men. Maybe she’s saying that non-gender conforming folk are the ones truly setting the world’s stage. However you interpret them, these silent scene-precursors are visually intriguing.
At 90 minutes, Straight White Men zips by at the pace of an expertly timed sitcom, but plumbs depths worthy of a dissertation. By exposing and questioning the power of privilege, Straight White Men is as necessary as it is entertaining.
Straight White Men continues through
March 19th March 26th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays-Sundays 3pm & 7:30pm . Tickets are $20-$89, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Madison Dirks (Jake), Syd Germaine (Syd, after March 4), Ryan Hallahan (Drew), Elliott Jenetopulos (Elliott, through March 4), Brian Slaten (Matt), Alan Wilder (Ed), Will Wilhelm (Will, u/s Elliott, Syd), Michael Dailey (u/s Matt), Hanson Keys (u/s Ed), Scott Allen Luke (u/s Drew, Jake)
behind the scenes
Young Jean Lee (playwright, director), David Evans Morris (scenic design), Jamie McElhinney (sound design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Enver Chakartash (costume design), Chris Giarmo (original music, remixes), Mike Farry (dramaturg), Faye Driscoll (choreographer), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Jessica L. Fisch (associate director), Jonathan Berry (artistic producer), Tom Pearl (director of production), JC Clementz, Tam Dickson (casting), Christine D. Freeburg (asst. stage manager), Anna D. Shapiro (artistic director), David Schmitz (executive director), Gina Marie Hayes, Caitlin Lowans (assistant directors), Lindsey Lyddan (asst. lighting design), Jimin Brelsford (asst. sound design), Michael Dold (additional props), Aaron Stephenson (sound board operator), Sarah Lewis (asst. charge artist), Sarah Diefenbach (wardrobe crew), Vanessa Rundle (run crew), Alison McLeod (script supervisor), Gianna Petrosino (stage management apprentice), Lavina Jadhwani, Derek Matson, Leean Torske (artistic engagement associates), Michael Brosilow (photos)