Lose your expectation that the title Straight White Men, when affixed to a play written and directed by a Korean American woman, must provide some Jane Goodall–type analysis of what makes Euro-American heterosexual males tick — like some reverse Memoirs of a Geisha. Straight White Men, after all, could be the title of nearly any play by David Mamet. (His Boston Marriage, also presented in the Anspacher Theater at the Public years ago, may be the exception — not to mention his most Young Jean Lee–ish play.) Lee’s merely indulging her habit of investigating demographics outside (and sometimes, inside) her own — stereotypes of black men in The Shipment, untitled feminists in Untitled Feminist Show, Romantic poets in The Appeal.
Apparently fueled by compassion for her audience, Lee has focused on a comparatively inoffensive variety of SWM for her surprisingly normal man-cave drama, a mainly liberal bunch of guys raised by a woman (deceased) who designed a board game called Privilege, which they played as children. These fictional SWMs sometimes prove too self-aware for the pseudo-realism to which Lee aspires, but nobody needs her to do an impression of Mamet (or, God forbid, Neil LaBute).
The setup is a cunning study in blandness: Two sons of a man named Ed (Austin Pendleton) arrive home on Christmas Eve to find a third brother, Matt (James Stanley), in a tailspin. Matt’s a rudderless do-gooder overwhelmed by student loans, living with his dad in uncertainty and depression. His novelist brother Drew (Pete Simpson) tries to convince him that therapy will make him happy, while his self-described “asshole” Wall Street–executive brother Jake (Gary Wilmes) berates Matt for what he sees as wasting his life.
The brothers share a lovingly violent rapport, replete with Stooge-like antics. They douse each other mercilessly, Jake suffocates a hungover Drew with a sweaty towel, they pratfall over the couch and play-rape each other, all of it hilarious and true to brothers everywhere, regardless of color or sexuality. One gets the sense their mother must have been the disciplinarian, because these guys seem like they’re becoming less mature as they approach middle age, and Ed hardly ever raises his voice. Lee might well have titled the show Brothers, given how much brilliant slapstick and tenderness she and the cast wring out of mere horseplay. Wilmes and Simpson, gifted physical comedians who have worked with many of the same theatrical auteurs for more than a decade, are practically real brothers offstage. Your lizard brain may wish their spastic dancing took up a much greater percentage of the show.
When Ed offers to pay off Matt’s loans, though, Lee nearly nails a stake through the heart of what privilege means in America — not whiteness, exactly, but money. Matt’s reluctance to accept the gift may stem from his awareness that unearned wealth helps maintain white economic dominance, and that failing to question it makes a mockery of the American Dream. Or the offer may simply have wounded his pride. Poor thing! But the play ends too soon to unravel Matt’s motivations, as if it were the first act of a longer work. For most people of color, of course, his problem is not a dilemma but a pipe dream. Hell, for most people, period.