It can be said that America did not pay enough attention to what a majority of straight white men were really thinking until Nov. 9. A fortuitous hint from this election year came when president-elect Donald J. Trump won the Republican primary. But that wasn’t enough. Actually, successful voter turnout from the straight white man’s demographic looked bleak, according to some. Just days before the election, actress Lena Dunham asked her father Carroll “how he felt about the extinction of white men” in a tweet. Carroll responded, “Straight white guys have been screwing things up long enough” and that it was “high time for straight white males to step back and let some other people do it.”
And on Nov. 9, political analysts were stunned after diverting their eyes from this crucial voting bloc. But playwright Young Jean Lee was not shocked. In fact, the white male privilege rhetoric dispelled by Dunham’s dad echoes in her latest play, Straight White Men.
Straight White Men doesn’t consider why white men are privileged, but instead contemplates what they should do about it. The family—three brothers and their father—at the center of Lee’s play is liberal and progressive; we see evidence of this in the first act when they pull out their revamped version of Monopoly, called “Privilege.” Instead of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, they use a “denial card” to get out of things, and if they get stopped by the police they won’t immediately go to jail. The game was created by their late mother who designed it to remind them that they are privileged. One of the actors says, “How else would we learn how not to be assholes?”
The three brothers, in their mid-forties, are together for Christmas in their father’s home, reminiscing and roughhousing, but after one of the brothers suddenly has a breakdown, their merriment melts into a discussion about achievement. The scene sneaks up on the audience, bringing gravity to too much horseplay when two of the brothers accuse the other, Matt (Michael Tisdale), of not using his “white privilege,” and the outcome is unexpected—a glimpse into what it looks like when straight white men screw things up.
The characters in Lee’s naturalist family drama spend much of their stage time interrogating their privilege, and their problems are very much middle class: Matt is a Harvard grad paying off a mountain of school loans, Drew (Avery Clark) is seeing a therapist to figure out how to achieve happiness, and Jake (Bruch Reed) is a divorced banker who misses his family. Lee uses theater to play with perception and racial identities: Through a stripped down, sparse set design, she makes it clear that racial and gender privilege do not equal economic privilege. The “brand” of the straight white man demographic—unflappable, wealthy, entitled—is a stereotype. This is not to say that Lee views this group as oppressed, but it does evoke some sympathy.
Director Shana Cooper makes her debut at Studio Theatre and stages a nuanced, focused production. Tisdale, Clark, and Reed don’t physically look like brothers, but the chemistry between them—their clashes and moments of familial love and hate—sells it. And for the intimacy of the stage, they’re able to exercise a good amount of physicality—jumping on and off couches and chasing each other around—thanks to Cooper’s deft blocking.
But some of Cooper’s directorial choices aren’t as swift. At 85 minutes with no intermission, Cooper utilizes Jeymee Semiti in the role of “stagehand-in-charge” to transition between scenes, reminding the audience to turn off their cellphones while she helps to dress and undress the stage. It’s a well-performed role, albeit an unnecessary one that comes off as bit too pretentious.
Despite the political climate, it’s easy to put Straight White Men’s politics aside and enjoy watching the titular white men let it all go: After a major blow-up, the three brothers come back together for a pseudo-dance-off to Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control.” But even then, it’s hard to ignore the characters’ perceived wokeness: “You can’t change the system without giving up what you have.”
At Studio Theatre to Dec. 18. 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$85. (202) 232-7267. studiotheatre.org.