Before Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s “Straight White Men” – presented in Ann Arbor this past weekend by University Musical Society – got underway on Friday, eardrum-pounding hiphop music filled the Mendelssohn Theater.
This was so antithetical to the usual staid, hushed atmosphere of a theater before showtime that I winced and rolled my eyes, as I sometimes do when a young white guy drives by in a car that’s vibrating with bass and expletive-packed lyrics.
Oh. Right. This play is about those guys.
But while you might guess, from the title, that Lee’s drama mocks or berates this demographic, it is instead a sympathetic, moving, and surprisingly naturalistic – particularly if you saw Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show” last week at Ann Arbor’s Power Center – family drama about ambition and masculinity.
Three grown brothers are gathered at their childhood home to celebrate Christmas with their widowed father, Ed (Richard Riehle). Drew (Frank Boyd), the youngest son, is a single, successful novelist and a teacher; Jake (Corey Brills), the middle son, is a showboating, boisterous banker who recently divorced his wife, who is black; and Matt (Brian Slaten), the oldest, who was considered the brightest and best of the boys, attending Harvard and then Stanford. But just before earning his PhD, he dropped out, and he’s been living with his father, working temp jobs at liberal nonprofit organizations, ever since.
What’s going on in Matt’s head? Jake and Drew express occasional curiosity as all three brothers revert back to their childhood personas, playing video games, joking with each other, and pulling out the board game Privilege – a re-vamped Monopoly board that their liberal-minded mother hijacked in an attempt to keep them from growing up to be entitled jerks.
So Lee (thankfully) doesn’t make this a family of straw men. And when Matt breaks down crying on Christmas Eve – just as everyone’s smooshed together on the couch, digging into their Chinese food – the urgency to solve the mystery of Matt is increased a hundredfold.
Each member of the family has his own working theory, but the notions are more a reflection of the theorists’ own neuroses and obsessions than Matt’s. Drew’s convinced that Matt suffers from depression and should seek therapy, as he has. Jake thinks that’s nonsense, and that Matt’s life choices are based in political awareness and bravery, since he’s rejecting the system that unfairly rewards him; and though Ed has enjoyed living with his eldest son, he’s convinced that Matt’s student loan debt is oppressing him.
Matt refutes each theory, but to push the point further, Ed insists on Matt doing a mock job interview with him, during which Matt says he simply wants “to be useful” and “to not make things worse.” But as he’s coached, and encouraged to sound more like Jake in his answers, you feel the intensity of the men’s need to define Matt’s “problem” – more for themselves than for him. They need a narrative to tell themselves. Otherwise, how do you justify or explain the existence of discontentment at the top of humanity’s food chain?
“Straight”’s ensemble is terrific, and Slaten – who must negotiate Matt’s emotional shifts and unassuming reserve – does great work, making Matt opaque but vulnerable. Scenic designer David Evans Morris creates a classic white middle class bachelor pad, complete with colorless leather furniture, cheap bookshelves, beige carpeting, a dartboard on the door, etc. Costume designer Enver Chakartash dresses each brother as they choose to project themselves: Jake looks more put-together than his brothers, even while on vacation; Drew is the dressed down, flannel-wearing Midwestern novelist; and Matt’s in neutral tones, never drawing extra attention to himself.
What’s brilliant about this deceptively simple play is that you can’t help but wonder if Matt’s telling the truth at every turn, but no one wants to hear it. He says, at one point, everything was fine, and that he and Ed were happy living together (which Ed confirms) before Jake and Drew arrived for the holidays. Doing temp work and being a companion to his dad may have been all the fulfillment Matt needed – which might be unusual, but not impossible. He could be a man who feels no drive to find a partner and have his own family, or achieve goals in service to an ambitious career. He might not want what he’s supposed to want.
But that indicates a seemingly terrifying breakdown in the system – hence the rush to diagnose him. And no one ever considers that his emotional outburst could be about something unrelated to career, depression, or money.
For it could be nothing more than the result of being flooded with family memories – both happy and sad – because what remains of your loving family is back together again in your childhood home for Christmas.
But “Straight White Men” just don’t cry about stuff like that. Do they?
BY JENN MCKEE