The family of Young Jean Lee’s most famous play, Straight White Men, which was her Broadway debut, have arrived for their UK premiere. At the Southwark Playhouse, brothers gambol and fall over each other like frisky colts, on shaky pyjama limbs. They’re ushered in front of us by two Persons in Charge, neither of whom are straight white men: played by the charming Kim Tatum and Kamari RomÃ©o, we won’t see them very much.
“From here on out,” these two tell us at the beginning, things will “proceed as one might expect.” The problem for me is that they do just that. The stage is ceded to three grown-up siblings and their dad, who experience their first Christmas without a female presence and try to address the seeming listlessness of one of their number. Is it just depression, or a self-punishing kind of white sacrifice leading oldest brother Matt (Charlie Condou, affably tired) to “stagnate” at home with his warm dad Ed (Simon Rouse) instead of taking what he could from the world? Against Suzu Sakai’s worn-in, cosy living room set, eggnog is drunk, old parody lyrics for Oklahoma are revived, but understanding proves impossible.
It feels very gently satirical: Alex Mugnaioni, as Jake, is a twitchily funny banker with the most right-on opinions and biracial Black children from a failed marriage, while Drew (a boyish Cary Crankson, now replaced by Simon Haines) is the more sensitive, therapy-pushing published academic. Lee’s setting of a womanless family Christmas locates most of the dialogue and action onstage in the realm of affectionate grotesquerie: she’s pretty restrained as to when she lets the characters explicitly mention race, sexuality and gender, but when they do, it’s not particularly striking or insightful. Maybe it’d be a mistake to expect anything like that from these characters, but surely not from the play itself?
I think a worse but easier play would’ve been meaner and sharper in making fools of these guys: instead, it’s bone dry, but just as lightweight as bone, too. The more physical points of Steven Kunis’ production (with movement by Christina Fulcher) land well, with the Persons in Charge satisfyingly manipulating the straight white men into place like animators bent over squash and stretch.
But for the most part, Tatum and RomÃ©o have very little to do and barely appear, and their framing doesn’t feel as if it deepens or sharpens what Lee’s really concerned with, which is the drama between these straight white men, the question of what straight white men are meant to do with themselves. But why bother asking this when your only point seems to be that straight white men are people, which we knew anyway, if you’re not going to pose it interestingly? I share even more of the privileges which Lee identifies herself as having in common with men like this, and even though I’m interested in the place of weary self-abnegation in which we realise Matt is beached, the route taken and how that feels I think mistakes dramatic vagueness for ambiguity.
I find myself wishing that this production excavated some deeper weirdness to Straight White Men, but perhaps it isn’t there to be dug out. Straight White Men was born from Lee’s process of writing the last play she’d want to, as a challenge to herself (hence a linear, naturalistic narrative play here), but it doesn’t hit unless we feel the emotional and social stakes for Matt. Whether it’s ultimately on Lee’s part or the production’s, it feels like Matt and his family’s story isn’t quite committed to in some vital way. And the softly metatheatrical delivery of the play, with the Persons in Charge structure, doesn’t end up feeling sharp, surreal or even unsettled enough to make up for that, and make enough of an impression on its own.
I fear this is partially a problem of programming: in 2014, when Straight White Men debuted, “privilege” was the word of the moment, it was incendiary still, I was a twat at uni imperiously rolling it out at every opportunity. Seven years on, the concept’s finally become so ubiquitous that the game of Privilege, as the game of Monopoly pulled out early on in the play has been rebranded, has lost pretty much any satirical punch.
And contrary to the Persons in Charge’s gently-voiced assumption, an audience at Southwark Playhouse for this play aren’t put at much discomfort by blaring fun sexually explicit hip-hop at the top of the show. I don’t think it’s a device which does much to question whose space it is, here and now, even if that audience is very white (which it was): it’s simply too familiar as a tactic by this point, the audience subsumes it. Will this play at Southwark Playhouse attract the kind of audience who this could be a danger to or even destabilise, or would they count themselves outside of its effect?
I wish Southwark Playhouse were keeping Straight White Men playing up until Christmas, which would have been a confident, funny programming choice and might’ve helped the production find itself. It was a welcome surprise, and not things proceeding as one might expect, to discover that this is a Christmas play.
Straight White Men is on at Southwark Playhouse till 4th December. More info here.