Straight White Men at The Public Theater
With the level of scrutiny directed towards the politics of representation, it’s unusual to see an artist profess to fully “capture” another group’s reality. Instead, works are based on; inspired by; informed by. So producing a show entitled Straight White Men about straight white men is a bold move on the part of playwright Young Jean Lee. Lee’s play describes the experience of a type of person almost nothing like herself. Fair enough; re-presentation is a critical move for any kind of fiction (even diaristic work involves a repackaging; the past self through the lens of the future). But the next step, of implying a kind of anthropological understanding, takes the work into shaky territory, extending past fiction.
The play opens with a clever illustration of familial intimacy, introducing two grown men messing around like little boys, so that we can’t tell whether they are channeling past dynamics or actually performing as children. In the next scene, another brother comes in and they all start using their words, to unfortunate effect: suddenly the acting seems nervous, the pacing stilted. Perhaps the actors are responding to some awkward cues in the writing. This scene, for example, asks the men to excitedly pull out “Privilege,” which seems to be a Monopoly set plastered over with the word “privilege,” the standard symbol for female, and a dollar sign. At this point I was still holding out hope that the over the top references would have some narrative or conceptual effect later on, to answer for the corniness and inauthenticity. The not-so-casual reminiscing on how to play felt more like attempts to set up bad jokes than the natural conversation of brothers with a fun history of playing “privilege” together. Pay $200 for claiming not to see race. These are moralistic jokes at their worst: when the punch line is “gee, that’s a fair critique.”
The acting continued to disappoint, as the boys challenged each other’s ways of life with what felt like prepackaged ethical stances. This is too bad because the subject matter, of conscientious straight white guys, had the potential for novelty and relevance. The four characters have this symbolic aura, like they represent perspectives on privilege: Jake the banker that knowingly forsakes his own notions of right and wrong for convenience and fiscal success; Drew the writer who attempts to balance his ethical uncertainty with yoga; and the distressed Will, whose psychological paralysis becomes the centerpiece of the story. Apparently Will’s self-consciousness has plagued him to loser-dom, as he desires no power with which to leverage his privilege. Is the live-at-home, temp-employed Will the inevitable position of a straight white man with some integrity? Jake seems to think so.
An interesting setup, and I wish I had been on board. Yet even if the acting were better, the writing seemed insistent on raising metaphors for privilege in the bluntest way possible. Between scenes a fully lit stage showed female helpers rearranging the set, sacrificing narrative flow for the opportunity to analogize.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Straight White Men was its title. I came to this production excited about Lee’s choice to name the work in a radical way. After all, the play seemed to offer itself up as bait. If Lee were to try to describe the straight white male experience, wouldn’t it be doing just what the oppressed resent the privileged for doing? Like the much-maligned male gaze, in which an external perspective speaks for and about another group, isn’t Lee subjecting straight white men to a Korean female gaze?
But this courageous choice places extra burden on the production to take the gesture to an interesting place. Otherwise the show uses oppressive tactics to no end, using the master’s tools without helping to dismantle the master’s house. The way I see it, the play almost works in two different ways.
If the characters were more plausible, and the acting were more consistent and believable, the play may have existed as an inverse of what we see all the time: one demographic’s experience described in a way that looks believable, but on closer inspection feels off; like lesbian sex scenes that actually represent male fantasies. The inverse of that (with the minority doing the oppressing) would, I think, be refreshing and radical for its novelty.
Alternatively, the play could have taken things to an extreme in which the men seem over-the-top unbelievable. In the post-play discussion, Lee spoke of talking with queer people and women of color about what they wished straight white men were like and what kinds of straight white men they could imagine themselves being. She said that, in a way, these were four options of what kind of straight white male she could be. The play could have been overtly about an outsider perspective on straight white maleness, somehow declaring these characters to be constructions. Out of place comments about male privilege could forcefully interrupt otherwise typical bro-y, brotherly vibes. This is almost what happens, but not quite; the production still comes off as attempted naturalism. The idea that the play is intended to be about three socially conscious contemporary men feels much more likely, even as the habits and characteristics of those men feel poorly cobbled together.
Had Lee gone farther in either direction, it could have worked, but this awkward middle ground just doesn’t. The play ends up muddled; the message unclear.
Images courtesy of The Public Theater.