Young Jean Lee is an intriguing playwright, one who deliberately forces herself to write about subjects that are difficult, uncomfortable and unfamiliar to her, in order to challenge her own assumptions and those of the audience in turn. As a South Korean immigrant to the US in the seventies, Lee’s upbringing would be far removed from that of the titular Straight White Men of her play.
Set somewhere in the Midwest, Lee focuses her story on the decidedly middle-class home of widower Ed (John Gaden) whose family of three adult sons have come together to spend the Christmas holidays with him now he is alone. None are encumbered with their wives, children or partners, and so the youngest two, Drew (Hamish Michael) and Jake (Luke Ryan) quickly revert to their childish brotherly behaviour of teasing, tormenting and one-upmanship. Matt (Gareth Reeves), the oldest brother, it turns out has been living with his father for a while, under the cover for keeping him company, but in fact in an effort to get out from underneath crippling student loans, while wallowing in self-pity. Having spent his life working on social causes in third-world countries, as opposed to his brothers, Matt has yet to achieve fiscal career success and his lack of experience outside this realm has meant he is stuck working temp jobs for community humanitarian organisations.
Despite its title and a fist-pumping introduction by an Xhosa South African female ‘Stagehand-in-Charge’ (Candy Bowers), Lee’s play is not a skewering of its subjects at all. It’s in fact quite a compassionate observation on the crisis that surrounds one man, from what is defined as a privileged background, who has not conformed to what society expects of him, nor achieved the level of success that privilege should have brought him.
Thanks in part to their late mother, who revised Monopoly into an educational board game called ‘Privilege’, the boys are in no way ignorant of the position they hold in the world. They may be immature and play-fight incessantly, but they aren’t elitist, entitled jerks. In fact, they’ve fought for equality most of their lives; in his youth Matt even wrote his own lyrics to ‘Oklahoma’ to protest his high school casting only white people in their production – he called it ‘Alabama’, complete with ‘KKK’ interpretive dance.
When Matt breaks down in tears over their Christmas Eve Chinese takeaway dinner, he shrugs away his brothers’ concerns and Ed reasons that his struggles with student debt must be getting to him. Over the course of the holidays, they all try to encourage Matt to improve his career prospects by making use of his connections and putting himself forward for roles outside of his experience. However, Matt is overwhelmed by his lack of purpose in life and refuses to admit to it as a treatable condition, or a problem to which there is an actionable solution, instead morbidly accepting his lot.
Lee makes her greatest observations when showing how Matt’s family respond to his situation, but there are a number of moments in Director Sarah Giles’ production that feel like untruthful or unbelievable reactions. Whether this be through a lack of subtlety – Giles pushes her cast to chase all the laughs available in the script – or through Lee’s writing feeling more like an exercise in making a point, than being grounded in absolute truth, it’s hard to say. New York based Lee usually directs her own work, so perhaps under interpretation that connection to the intent is less clear.
Giles does create quite an enjoyable presentation and enlists pleasing performances from her cast. Luke Ryan’s Jake is a swaggering high achiever with an outrageous appetite, yet no outward signs of excess. Ryan shows a high-paced switch from fun-loving sibling to dismissive aggressor quite effectively. Hamish Michael embodies Drew’s position as the baby of the family, full of petulance and child-like boorishness. While Michael is capable of restraint, as demonstrated in Drew’s reactions to his brother’s emotional state, at times his actorly performance eschews reality. John Gaden gives a wonderfully warm and paternal performance as Ed. He creates a reflection of fatherhood that most would wish for, making it hard to believe Ed’s lack of compassion as the story progresses.
Matt is a tough role to play, emotionally broken and hiding behind the shell of his everyday life, it’s hard to show what is going on, yet Gareth Reeves gives a well-balanced performance crafting an enigmatic character, hinting at his underlying torment, without displaying an all-out psychological breakdown. Reeve’s Matt is easy to sympathise with, making it hard to understand his family’s reactions. Lee puts forward the idea that for men of Matt’s background, society will sympathise with underachievers, but it will give no quarter to those who simply accept their situation, even when they’re family.
Set and Costume designs by Eugyeene Teh, perfectly capture the worn-in life of middle-class American suburbia. Lighting design by Lisa Mibus and Sound design by David Heinrich are both functional, appropriate and unobtrusive.
It’s a pleasure to see this sort of material being plucked out of the US by the MTC, for how it can be more challenging than the works often commissioned by mainstream companies, but a careful eye must be placed on interpretation, so that thought provoking material doesn’t devolve into simplistic ‘comedy with a message’. This production of Straight White Men skirts the edges, so audiences should be encouraged to reflect and delve deeper.