'Straight White Men' review — Young Jean Lee's play should spur conversation
The smaller of the two stages at Southwark Playhouse is turning into the buzziest place in town. Fast on the heels of the terrific Marek Horn play Yellowfin - a British play set in the U.S. - comes the local premiere of this 2018 Broadway entry from Young Jean Lee, who at the time made history as the first female Asian-American playwright to be produced on Broadway.
I missed Straight White Men in New York, but I couldn't be happier belatedly to make its acquaintance, the odd structural infelicity notwithstanding, in a surpassingly alive production from director Steven Kunis that owes no shortage of gratitude to its movement director, Christina Fulcher.
The construct is a tricksy one. In direct contravention of the title, we are greeted upon arrival by two elaborately arrayed performers of colour, Kamari Roméo and Kim Tatum, who come separately billed as Person in Charge and act as compères after a fashion. The men of the title soon appear and, with them, a naturalistic-seeming play that at times resembles Arthur Miller on speed, except for occasional (and scarifying) flights of fancy, like a rendition of the title song from Oklahoma! as that iconic number might sound performed by white supremacists.
The situation itself is as old as the hills, if you can put the author's modernist trappings to one side. At heart, this is one of those dysfunctional family dramas set around a holiday (in this case, Christmas) that anatomises masculinity, whether toxic or tearful, as it applies to the widowed Ed (Simon Rouse, excellent) and his three sons, who don't ever engage in conversation when they can roughhouse one or another into submission. The Norton family brood includes the charismatic, fiercely self-aware Jake (Alex Mugnaioni in a breakout performance), a banker who has recently got divorced from his wife with whom he has several children; the weepy Drew (Cary Crankson), a writer and teacher who, we're told, once dug his own grave in the backyard; and the even sadder, more indrawn Matt (Charlie Condou), a Harvard grad who once lived in Ghana and has moved back home to be his father's helper at the expense of any number of issues to do with self-esteem and finding some way to be useful to the world at large.
While dad worries about the heating, each son comes tethered to one particular concern or epithet: Matt is still reeling under the weight of student loans. Jake is trying to make peace with a world built on a rigged system of privilege of which he is a living, breathing example (the guys even play a board game, Privilege, which amounts to Monopoly given a serious conceptual overhaul). Drew can't escape the onetime description of him as "shit baby" for reasons we hardly need to go into here, beyond pointing out that Miller's fraternal drama, The Price, was never like this even if the familial template on view is instantly familiar.
The actors are all terrific, the fiercely electric Mugnaioni especially so in a role that makes full use of his singularly springy energy. (He's amazing in the play's extended dance break.) And you have to commend the commitment of all concerned, from Tatum navigating the difficult upper reaches of the Christmas carol "O Holy Night" to the three siblings leaping and vaulting into position on the sofa that gets a workout at the centre of Suzu Sakai's set. What issues I have come from a feeling that Lee's provocative structure doesn't deliver fully on its promise, allowing the play less to come to a natural end than simply to stop, when surely the opportunity is there to merge the two worlds of the family and the more raucous Persons at Large. It's odd, too, to hear Jake refer in passing to a mixed-race marriage now-ended which seems worthy of exploration all its own, rather than being left to hang in the air like a random biographical extra.
That said, I love the audaciousness of Lee's construct and the vibrancy with which it has been realised on this occasion. "I don't know anything," Matt says more than once, as he implodes in front of his family, but Straight White Men knows a helluva lot and should spur conversation, if not quite a wrestling match, all the way home.
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