In her understated yet thought-provoking work, Young Jean Lee makes her mark on Broadway with Straight White Men, and not just because she is the first Asian American woman to have her work on Broadway.
The premise of the play is simple, a father and his three grown sons gather for Christmas. But when the family is confronted with a question they can't answer, the celebrations with pajamas, brotherly trash-talking, and Chinese takeout come to an abrupt halt as they try to find the answer.
The experience begins before the tinsel curtain goes up. Upon walking into the theater, the audience is greeted by loud music while Person in Charge #1, Kate Bornstein, and Person in Charge #1, Ty Defoe, walk around the audience. The initial wonder as to why this is the initial atmosphere in the theater ends once the pair take to the stage to welcome us to the show. It is in their opening monologue that the theme of privilege is first introduced, and it remains a constant throughout the play. They introduce this by saying that the music playing during the pre-show was not catered to everyone's taste on purpose. It was to show that not everything is catered to one's taste when they are in the real world, and it gives us a different way to look at the story that unfolds on the stage.
We are then introduced to the family as their Christmas celebrations begin. Eldest brother Matt (Paul Schneider), who is living with their father Ed (Denis Arndt had originally stepped into the production, I saw Stephen Payne in the part and he has now stepped into the principal role full time); middle brother Jake (the brilliant Josh Charles), a recently divorced banker; and youngest brother Drew (perfectly portrayed by Armie Hammer), who is a writer and teacher.
The action comes to a head when Matt starts crying during dinner, promoting an intervention like reactions from his father and brothers, going as far as a mock job interview. It is here that the play becomes more serious, and examines the privilege of straight white men in a new light, one that is rather sympathetic.
The 90 minutes of the play introduce us to these men swiftly, and they seem to be the stereotypical family. But when Matt begins to refuse what has been given to him freely, the others are unsure of how to react, and the audience is given a deeper look into how they navigate their privilege.
Ed, who grew up in a time when you got a job, got married, and stayed married, is now retired from a good career. Jake is recently divorced from a black woman, and despite wanting to, doesn't bring women or people of color into his work for his clients because that's not what the clients want. He takes the route of personal awareness but public ignorance, while Drew approaches life by trying to find peace through his own happiness first, and dedicating his life to teaching.
Each is aware that because they are straight white men that the world they live in has been practically handed to them on a platter, but they don't like talking about it. Young Jean Lee leaves the audience questioning what privilege means, without a clear answer, much like how life won't provide us with clear answers to big questions like that.