Young Jean Lee’s brave societal exploration, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN, brings out the issues of privilege among, you guessed it—straight white men.
After an explosion of pre-show hip hop music, we witness the subjects, three grown brothers and Dad, during their annual Christmas ritual in one of their favorite habitats; a beige den, with neutral wall to wall carpet, replete with their favorite toys, snacks and beverages. The brothers horse around, banter, act like apes and other animals enjoying a return to the more wild days of their youth, while Dad or Ed (Dan Kern), a comfortably retired engineer, laid back, presumably widowed, enjoys watching their juvenile hi-jinks, like an ideal father. At one point Jake (Tim Dugan), the middle brother, and Drew (Kevin Meehan), the youngest, drag “Privilege” out of the closet, a game their mother had adapted from “Monopoly” to educate them in the ways of political correctness and social understanding, some of which seems to have stuck.
The brothers drink, dance, debate and dabble in light debauchery, enjoying the male bonding for the most part, until Matt (Steven Rishard), the older brother, has a minor melt down for no discernible reason. The few tears Matt sheds dampen the madcap holiday mood, setting off discord about what is wrong with Matt, Drew pushes therapy on Matt, because that is what helped Drew to be happy and fulfilled in his life as a published writer and teacher. Jake, a successful banker, believes that Matt, a Harvard educated prodigy, could do much better in life than working menial jobs for charitable organizations. Jake asserts that Matt doesn’t want to succeed because that would negate Matt’s highly ingrained political beliefs. Ed thinks that Matt is overwhelmed by outstanding student loans and offers to pay off his debt.
More is revealed about the others than why Matt is upset. Jake’s insistence, they put Matt through an excruciating mock employment interview to show him how to be more winning, but this makes matters worse, shredding the last hope for a happy family reunion. Matt still does not divulge the reason for his unmanly tears, seeking to be useful, and to remain as invisible as possible. Ironically, although Matt appears to be endeavoring to not have traits he feels are disliked about his kind (straight white men), he winds up being rejected as a failure, not only by the establishment and others, but by his own family as well.
The ultimate irony in the play comes in the guise of the wonderfully understanding and patient, seemingly sympathetic father, Ed, nailed by actor Dan Kern. His kindness and understanding denote all the best aspects of fatherhood, yet, in the end he sure packs a surprise punch. Steve Rishard endows Matt with quiet strength, even though his character may appear weak on the surface, and is even called cowardly within the play, but as portrayed by Rishard there is more than meets the eye. Tim Dugan’s vivacious outward energy as Jake works well against Kevin Meehan’s academic, more introspective mien as little brother Drew. Matt Pfeiffer succeeds in directing a well-wrought cast, and working with a talented technical team, including scenic designer, Samina Vieth, costume designer Alison Roberts, and sound and lighting designers Larry D. Fowler and Shannon Zura. Applause, which did occur, for theater apprentice extraordinaire, Cat Ramirez, of the breakfast shirt, who handled scene changes upon the handsome set with aplomb and panache.
No actual answers to any issues raised are given by Lee; simply 90 minutes worth of living theatrical momentum to agitate, unsettle and perhaps knock held conceptions out of bounds. Ready to get rattled?.
[Proscenium Theatre, the Drake, 1512 Spruce Street] May 27-June 19, 2016; interacttheatre.org.