THE URGE TO BE USEFUL
Steppenwolf Theatre is great at stirring things up—on stage and in the minds of its crowds. Nobody does it so well. Exhibit A is their latest offering: There’s good cause for the subversive disruption of Straight White Men. Employing a very generic title to set things apart, hot new playwright Young Jean Lee is not white or male. (We won’t guess beyond that.) But that hasn’t stopped her script from exposing its title.
Lee’s Chicago premiere doesn’t pretend to offer an inside look at four male members of a Midwest family in their “man cave” of a family room, celebrating Christmas over three days. That’s just the outside. The play, author/director Lee confesses, is her answer to the question: “If I woke up tomorrow as a straight white man, what would I do?”
The answer is bound to trigger a dozen more questions–and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Despite the broadly-encompassing title, the defining situation in Straight White Men is very specific. Is there a price to pay for privilege, perceived or actual? Essentially a dramatized debate, Lee’s 90-minute provocation, persuasively (if sometimes skittishly) staged by the author, assembles a liberal father and his three sons for a seminal holiday encounter.
Grown but still bratty, the now-single brothers engage in a lot (too much) goofing off, rough-house antics, water-dousing, competitive kidding, pranks, and other forms of male dis-bonding. (We get the point: They’re happy to talk trash but embarrassed by emotion.) Memories (too many) are mongered to prove they share a long past. The brothers briefly launch into a game of Monopoly that, years ago, they cleverly renamed “Privilege.” They playfully don plaid pajamas. Finally, the small talk turns to trouble–and ends in a wrenching abandonment.
So who are these guys?: Widower dad Ed (Alan Wilder, haplessly well-intentioned) has his hands full with one more family reunion, ordering out for Chinese food or bagels, playing video games, decorating the symbolically defective Christmas tree, wailing parody carols, turning down the heat to save money. Youngest son Drew (a confident Ryan Hallahan) is a teacher who believes in self-affirmation as a cure for his latent negativity. Middle son Jake (Madison Dirks, ripely righteous) is a self-declared “socialist banker”: All too aware of his advantages, Jake thinks success means not selling yourself short but, yes, selling yourself. Self-promotion is more important than doing good or making a difference. Image matters more than identity.
Then there’s the black sheep/prodigal son: The supposed hope of the clan, eldest brother Matt (Brian Slaten, more defensive than depressed) went to Harvard, did social work in Ghana, and seemed on a fast track to glory. But now he’s living with dad, contentedly or resignedly doing temp work—copying, proofing and editing documents for a non-profit human rights organization. Besides paying off his student loans, Matt just wants to be “useful,” something he never felt he was when he was sharing stuff he didn’t understand with people who weren’t interested. Nearly unemployed, Matt has nothing to prove—and it’s driving his family crazy.
From here on, the thrust of this one-act is to isolate Matt through a dramatic process of elimination. It amounts to an “intervention” straight out of the A&E Network: A radical progressive, Drew insists that low-esteem Matt force himself to be happy (not “useful”) by seeing a shrink and popping pills. But Drew perversely praises Matt’s unintended vow of poverty as Matt’s sacrifice of unearned entitlement and renunciation of white men’s prerogatives: Matt, Drew argues, is “getting out of the way” so worthy minority or female job applicants can do his work. He just needs to enjoy this escape and stop crying in the middle of a family meal. In a rare sweet moment, Drew reads a hung-over Matt the story of Silenus, a classical character who discovers the virtue of doing nothing.
In contrast, motivational-minded Jake is convinced that sad-sack Matt should fake it till he makes it. He must put his “white guilt” to good purpose. Jake fairly savors the pressure on the privileged to prosper. Jake admits he’s an asshole and a racist and other folks deserve his luck more than he does. But what can you do in a world where skills don’t count, where what you see is all you get? What Jake can’t abide is that his big brother could be “a loser for no reason.” That’s an unpardonable sin.
Ineffectually representing an earlier time when playing by the rules was all that manhood required, ever-enabling dad Ed is caught in the crossfire: He offers to subsidize Matt’s apparent failure, a generosity that easy-going Matt takes as an insult. The family puts Matt through an imaginary job interview: His inept role-playing at playing phony is the proverbial last straw.
By play’s end Matt might as well be an orphan. As with the best Steppenwolf shows, the audience, pondering Lee’s volatile mix of tough love and false expectations, is forced to take sides. Yes, there’s too much talk here and not enough plot—but it’s Steppenwolf’s strength to make questions count more than answers.
An interesting aside about the pre-show for Straight White Males: As we enter the upstairs theater, the audience is drowned in loud indie-rock music—really deafening stuff. Two gender-neutral lads (who will later literally manipulate the performers between each of the three scenes) take the stage. Smarmily and disingenuously, the cute youngsters (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm on opening night) apologize for not having considered an older audience’s comfort levels. Smiling, they also congratulate the hip patrons who actually savored the bass beats. This overly cute caution, it seems, is Lee’s version of Bette Davis’s acidic quip in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.” That indeed.
Straight White Men
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St
ends on March 19, 2017
EXTENDED to March 26, 2017
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago