What a difference a director can make. The first time I saw the dark comedy Straight White Men, it was directed by its playwright Young Jean Lee for a 2014 workshop production at the Public Theater and although Lee is a longtime downtown darling revered for her audaciousness, the result was dour and off-putting. But the new Second Stage production that opened this week at the company's Helen Hayes Theater under the vibrant direction of Anna D. Shapiro gave me an evening in the theater that was both thought-provoking and entertaining.
Lee, who with this production becomes the first Asian-American woman to have a play open on Broadway, is known for her deep dives into questions of race and gender (click here to read a great profile of her). She usually comes at these issues from the perspective of the oppressed. Her breakout piece The Shipment took on contemporary stereotypes about black people. Another one Untitled Feminist Show upended the ways in which women's bodies are stigmatized by featuring six nude performers ranging in size from petite to obese.
So it's clear that Lee is making a provocative statement just by turning her gaze on the hetero cis-gendered white guys who give her play its title. The four in Straight White Men are Ed, a widowed father in his 70s, and his three grown sons Matt, Jake and Drew who have gathered to celebrate Christmas.
The baby of the family Drew is a tenured professor and an award-winning novelist who flits from woman to woman. Middle brother Jake is a high-powered banker and recently divorced. But the eldest Matt has moved back in with their dad, works at a temp job, hasn’t dated in years and, despite his protestations that all is well, breaks into tears as they eat a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese takeout.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Matt's siblings’ bungling attempts to understand and cure his sadness. Lee has added a framing device and two new characters for this Broadway production. They are called the Persons in Charge and are played by the gender fluid performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe who roam the audience before the show starts, introduce it with some TED Talk-style patter and then literally position the actors in place before each scene begins.
I think these gender-defying masters of ceremonies are supposed to symbolize the fact that our concept of masculinity is in flux but they seem redundant because when done right, as it's done here, Straight White Men makes that point on its own.
The play goes out of its way to establish that these guys are aware of the privilege that their race and gender give them. Drew solicitously suggests that Matt might be struggling with coming out. Jake's ex-wife is a black woman and his kids are mixed-race. In the first scene the two of them play a modified version of the board game Monopoly called Privilege in which the player who draws a white card has to pay a $200 penalty and go to jail.
And yet, in ways large (Jake mentors only whites at his bank) and small (the brothers communicate best when they manhandle one another) Straight White Men makes it clear that these men find it hard to break out of the roles that society has set for them. Which is why they're so horrified by Matt's feminine behavior: taking care of their dad, working a low-paying job, crying.
In short, it's a hard-eyed look at how men oppress themselves. But Shapiro keeps the play from being tendentious or tedious by emphasizing the genuine affection these men feel for one another and their earnest desire to be better than they are. This choice not to portray them as villains is an audacious act of compassion for liberal theatermakers to make in the current political climate.
Shapiro also doesn't shy away from using the innate charms of her actors. Lots of people are turning out to see the show because Drew is played by the movie star and avatar for today's straight white man Armie Hammer (click here for a very long profile about him) or because they liked the actors playing his siblings, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, in their roles on the TV shows "The Good Wife" and "Parks and Recreation."
Under Shapiro's steady hand, all three actors appear totally comfortable onstage and deliver performances that go far beyond cameo status. But the biggest test to her mettle may have been the cast changes that occurred over the past few weeks when Tom Skerritt bowed out of playing Ed during rehearsals and was replaced by Denis Arndt, who bowed out during previews (click here to read about all of that).
Shapiro finally tapped the show's understudy Stephen Payne to play Ed. Payne isn't a name like his co-stars but he is additional proof that this director really knows what her play needs.