Pranks and Pressure: “Straight White Men” at WHAT
The contrast couldn’t be more stark: as the audience enters, it’s greeted by over-loud rap music (performed by women and people of color) and taken on a tour of the play’s premises by two people who are clearly not straight white men; and then Justin Lahue’s excellent set is revealed to be a stuck-in-time family room, almost colorless and completely dull.
It’s Christmas Eve as we meet the characters: Ed (Mark Hofmaier) and his son Matt (Mike Mihm) live in this drab house, while sons Jake (Andy McCain) and Drew (Carol Howell), respectively a banker and a writer, are on a visit for the holiday. Holiday family reunions may be a trope in numerous novels, plays, and movies, and playwright Young Jean Lee grabs it and runs… but in a somewhat different direction than, say Hallmark might do, with a message that everyone on either side of the political spectrum might absorb: that when it comes to labels, there’s always more to the story.
It transpires that these characters recognize their advantage, as they play a Monopoly-type game called—naturally—Privilege (“the game where you have fun by not having fun” that awards a “domestic labor bonus”), and eventually (along with a great deal of childish name-calling, roughhousing, and dancing) reveal that they’re each actually acutely aware of the status given them by their race, gender, and sexual identity. Ed shrugs it off (“how else were you supposed to learn not to be assholes?”) and they remind each other, joyfully, of their high school re-imagining of Oklahoma as OKKK (“saving the world, one goose step at a time”).
The question all that presents is, inevitably, what happened to you?
Lee brings us to the brink of finding out time and time again, then eases us back off it. Ed carefully puts toothbrushes in the men’s stockings; all of them don “the pajamas” in a family ritual; bagels are brought in for breakfast. It’s what one might expect of a man and his three unmarried (Josh is in the process of getting a divorce) adult sons: an attempt to sink into the easy nostalgia of the holidays.
Then, over Chinese food on Christmas Eve, Matt inexplicably begins to cry. And everyone becomes suddenly terrified. And everyone retreats into his comfort zone with a click that’s almost audible. Matt is, in fact, a mystery to the others—he amassed impressive degrees, worked with the Peace Corps in Africa, is clearly someone who could be a CEO or executive director of a nonprofit, but instead lives with their father, does temp work, and is a tad obsessive about cleaning. None of that fits into their image of what a straight white man should do with the privilege he’s been handed.
The actors are all beyond excellent in their roles. Hofmaier shows Ed as frantic beneath his bumbling exterior, with a need for easy answers and a growing suspicion that there are none. Howell plays Drew with a certain coiled energy that’s present even when he’s suffering from a hangover. McCain’s Jake is trying desperately to have it all—while seeing it slip through his fingers. (McCain is also choreographer and needs special mention for the smoothness and energy of the roughhousing sequences.) And Mihm imbues Matt with a sort of sad and mysterious dignity against which the other characters seem almost two-dimensional. Their ensemble work shines through their timing, their seamless fitting of characters together, their ability to give the whole as well as the individuals an undercurrent of pathos.
A special shout-out to Eleanor Philips and Freddy Biddle as the “persons in charge.” Both play for—and get—the laughs, and are, as their characters demand, larger and more robust even than those playing out the family scenes.
WHAT’s production of Straight White Men is nothing less than world-class. Director Sasha Brätt, no stranger to Wellfleet, not only reveals himself as a casting genius but also infuses his scenes with timing that’s no less than perfect. It’s hard to see how any production could be better directed… or produced, with WHAT Artistic Director Christopher Ostrom on lighting, Seth Brodie on costume design (how on earth to make matching pajamas less appealing?), and Sam Sewell on sound design. The various parts make for an immensely satisfying whole.
Audiences may not enjoy the ending, which is (almost inevitably, it seems) dark; but Straight White Men will give them fodder for conversations that just might be useful to have. Highly recommended!