In Straight White Men, the newest work from playwright Young Jean Lee, privilege is a birthright, a burden, an obscenity, even a board game. Despite the facetiousness of the latter (Monopoly repurposed to teach three brothers “how not be assholes,” courtesy of their PC mom), what privilege isn’t is something to be taken lightly. Under Lee’s playful direction, which has a blast with the physical energy of her superb cast (Gary Wilmes, Pete Simpson, Austin Pendleton and James Stanley), this smart, funny and semantically loaded play poses the only somewhat ironic question that maybe no one else has asked before: could it actually be a curse and not a privilege to be a straight white man?
Lee teases out her thinking by imagining the emotional suffering of a guy who, on paper at least, has everything going for him: a Harvard diploma, Stanford post-grad studies, development work in Ghana, a loving family and a comfortable middle-class background. So what’s wrong with Matt (played by Stanley as an alternately genial and moody geek)?
The oldest of those three brothers, Matt is the oblique focus of Straight White Men. Not only is he stuck in entry level temp work while living at home to pay off his crushing student loans, he cries at dinner on Christmas Eve and avoids any discussion of his situation with his younger, much more successful brothers. These are Jake, an impenitently divorced banker and smooth operator (effortlessly portrayed by Wilmes) and Drew, an established novelist in therapy (Simpson), whose adolescent rant in the play’s opener – “I’m a little airplane nyow nyow” – foreshadows the family’s crop duster approach to Matt’s “problem” in the play’s climactic final act.
Lee clearly intends to shake up some preconceptions, and the thinly disguised trap she lays to get things started is all the more biting. Some very not PC female rap music booms and thunders into designer David Evans Morris’ picture-perfect suburban living room with shades of man cave: leather sofa set, old stationary bike, piles of shoes and coats and cheesy holiday decorations (the action builds and peaks in the three days around Christmas).
Before long, Jake and Drew, after some fraternal wrestling followed by insatiable hunger pains that set them whining (“I want [pie] now!” Wilmes’ Jake practically screams in a toddler fit), have found “Privilege” in the laundry closet. It’s “the game where you have fun by not having fun” they laughingly remember of their late mother’s creation, where racist, sexist and homophobic jokes are punishable by cash payments to the wronged minority groups while “undervalued domestic labor” is entitled to bonuses.
Hardly your run-of-the-mill midwestern family in terms of a guiding ethos, these “boys” and their still doting father (Pendleton, as an adorably sprightly retiree) politely dance around the discussion for two days, giving Lee ample opportunity to have fun at their expense by invoking more than a few stereotypes of college frat-type behavior. Things get more serious, however, as she incessantly plays Matt’s new, feminized role as his father’s own “undervalued domestic labor” off of Jake and Drew’s social and professional mobility. But while Drew lives by a shallow self-help mantra, Jake has no illusions about the social consciousness they’ve been imparted by their parents: they’re all just “self-actualizer hypocrites” and “checkbook activists” who “pay other people to do the shit work of acting on their ideals,” leaving them free to “do whatever the fuck [they] want.”
After exploring female and racial identities in Untitled Feminist Show and The Shipment respectively, Lee takes a 180 degree turn by shining the spotlight on the demographic majority whose gender, race and sexual orientation have made them the rulers of life as we know it. But seriously, is it really such a burden to be part of that ruling class? Lee slides a bit of self-deprecating, antinatalist philosophy into the brouhaha, having Matt read Drew his favorite story, about the Dionysian companion Silenus, whose famous axiom went that if you have to be born at all, it’s better to die soon. Matt and Jake and Drew might have believed that stuff once but it’s a man-eat-man world out there, and may the best (i.e. straight white) man win.
BB Yates on Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment
Changing the Rules: an interview with Young Jean Lee