Playwright Young Jean Lee looks for a challenge in every new play, asking herself "what's the last show in the world I would ever want to make?" — and then making that show. Indeed, Lee is known for her provocative, timely, and exciting productions. Her newest play Straight White Men, however, is less effective in packing a cultural and philosophical punch than past pieces, such as Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die. While the production overall makes for an enjoyable evening, the majority of its content skirts the issue of straight white male privilege, opting to please rather than challenge the audience.
The production excels in its sexy design, especially from a sound standpoint. Upon entering the Martinson Theater at the Public, aggressively loud rap music affronts audience members as they find their seats. From the extreme pre-show music, to the transition songs, to a bacchanalian dude dance party, Lee and sound designers Chris Giarmo and Jamie McElhinney create meaningful moments of aesthetic bliss via their aural/visual collaboration. Visually, the production’s brilliant box set designed by David Evans Morris is fully visible when one enters the theatre space, the layout smacking of a network television sit-com recorded before a live audience. The set is a portrait of middle class American "game room" culture: a beige couch and armchair, white carpet everywhere, stacks of plastic tupperware stuffed with Christmas decorations, and book shelves bursting with paperbacks, board games, and assorted tchotchkes.
The comedic timing of the brothers’ endless quips also add to the middle-class white family charm. Lee's direction establishes a nuanced family dynamic between Austin Pendleton (Ed), Pete Simpson (Drew), James Stanley (Matt), and Gary Wilmes (Jake). The physical timing of Wilmes and Simpson are especially polished, both of whom deliver physical gags and witticisms with expert alacrity. Towards the end of the play, however, actors seemed to struggle with the dialogue. This is perhaps because, in the final third of the play, the characters stylistically morph from sit-com buddy boys into existential talking heads. This transformation is awkward and somewhat disorienting, which could be productive except for the fact that their dialogue becomes miresome. It is unfortunately at this point that Straight White Men fails to fill in the space between slapstick and heady cultural commentary, with the end feeling tacked-on rather than part of the world of the play. All in all, while the production is part of a larger conversation about straight white male privilege, its ultimately value lies in the the charming performances and appealing design.
Straight White Men runs through Dec. 7 in the Martinson Theater at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Member tickets are priced at $30, and single tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.