Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Theatre review: Straight White Men

If Straight White Men are the demographic who've historically held all the power and are still trying to ensure things stay that way, Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee's play of the same name is an outsider's perspective on what it might look like to have that power, or at the very least the assumption that it's a deserved birthright, eroded. In many ways Straight White Men is That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, complete with the must-have accessory of a character who's a writer with one reasonably successful book under his belt, who teaches at a university for his day job and is struggling to write the second. Instead of Thanksgiving the occasion for this reunion is Christmas, and widower Ed (Simon Rouse) is excited to have all three of his adult sons back at home with him for a few days.

Although the eldest, Matt (Charlie Condou,) has actually been living back there for a while; always considered the most promising, he's actually ended up in a minimum-wage job and has moved back in with his father so he can at least pay off his student loans. Jake (Alex Mugnaioni) is by contrast a wealthy banker, but he's just got divorced and won't be seeing his children for Christmas; and Drew (understudy Simon Haines) is the semi-successful writer and lecturer. When they're back together under one roof the brothers automatically regress to an aggressively playful childhood relationship of gross-out jokes and trying to irritate each other, but Matt has moments when he goes blank, and when he bursts into tears over a takeaway dinner the rest of the family finally cotton on that he might be depressed - although he firmly denies it.

There's a couple of big conceits in Lee's play, one of which is that this might be a well-off white family full of straight men, but they've been raised to be socially conscious and not take their advantages for granted: Their late mother adapted a Monopoly board into a game called "Privilege," designed to remind them that not everyone has it as easy as them, and which they still play nostalgically. Matt in particular was known at school as a political firebrand who protested all-white school plays and volunteered in Africa while at college, and perhaps the cleverest idea Lee presents us with is that the way his life is going - in purely capitalist terms a failure - might be the logical extension of this: If he doesn't want to be part of a system that would rather give straight white men like him the best jobs over an equally or more qualified woman/POC/queer person, has he deliberately taken himself out of the market for them?

The other high concept is a structural one, as the central naturalism of Suzu Sakai's living room set is surrounded by reminders that this is a construct - lights displaying the play's title, posters for the production, and most of all a chorus of two performers who pointedly don't fit the privileged demographic of the title: Kim Tatum and Kamari Roméo introduce themselves as the People In Charge of the story, setting this up almost as a wildlife documentary of what the mythical Straight White Men might be like behind closed doors. Their purpose seems to be to remind us who's actually telling this story, but aside from an opening that makes it clear people not from the title group aren't to feel like the outsiders here they only really return for cabaret moments over the scene changes. I would have liked to have seen them actively living up to their job title rather than just an abstract personification of the writer. There's a reason I call these plays That American Play Where An Extended Family Gets Together After A Long Time, Preferably At Thanksgiving But That’s Optional, and I was excited to see an American writer perhaps acknowledge and deconstruct the trope, and disappointed when that wasn't really what we got.

This could be down to the tone of Steven Kunis' production but I don't think so - I think this naturalistic American story, presented not as the default but as an alien case study for those who've been othered to explore, is very much Lee's intention. But maybe in this case less of a dispassionate David Attenborough approach and more intervention might have kicked the evening up a notch. And while Straight White Men is infinitely more entertaining that 'Night Mother, it still comes across the same thorny issue of portraying depression on stage: Matt's refusal to engage with any discussion around his depression or whether his work situation is deliberate is credible, but not very dramatic. Funny at times, infuriating at others, Straight White Men is certainly something different, and there's a fascinating idea at the heart of it, but it does feel like there's one or two avenues of potential not entirely explored.

Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee is booking until the 4th of December at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

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