overheard in the Southwark Playhouse bar: “Are you here for straight white men?” Where did the answer come from: “Yes, I’m here for Straight White Men.” I haven’t heard anyone admit that for awhile in public, I think. The title might sound like a punchline, but Young Jean Lee’s play is actually there for straight white men, as far as it pleads for all of us to try and understand each other better.
Directed by Steven Kunis, this is his UK premiere. This made Lee the first Asian-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway in 2018, and it’s surprising that it took so long to get here; this loud production always feels like a cool, lively hot ticket.
Loud music blows up before the play starts, and Suzu Sakai’s artful ensemble frames a grim realist living room with signs like “LIVE SHOW,” a reminder that we are watching someone else’s building. . It is also underlined by Persons in Charge, two trans artists (Kamari Roméo and Kim Tatum), who brilliantly set the terms of the show. Their appearances are brief but important.
Most of the action almost feels like a sitcom, as three grown brothers return to their father’s house for Christmas. Confident, witty Jake (Alex Mugnaioni, a joy) is a recently divorced father, working as a banker; Nerdy Drew (Cary Crankson) is a bestselling novelist who has become evangelical about therapy, and quiet Matt (Charlie Condou) is a Harvard graduate who has returned to live with his father and works a temp job. Their widowed father, Ed (Simon Rouse), buys them all matching pajamas. Christina Fulcher’s stellar direction of movement has brought out physical performances that tell us as much as words – they bump into our faces, dive into bombshells, and generally engulf space as a way of life.
As they eat a takeout together and recall scatological childhood memories, Matt begins to cry – something that disturbs each of them in different ways. Why did he move? Is he depressed? Is he deliberately giving up his space in the world in sacrifice? He breaks the white man’s rules, to be powerful and to be successful. But isn’t withdrawing and wasting your opportunities also the embodiment of a privilege?
This was written in 2014, and since then we’ve gotten used to menz being dismissed in a more summary fashion. The compassion here seems almost picturesque, but it’s also a call to the rest of the world to receive it in return. Lee’s play is funny, well-observed, often surprisingly sweet and refreshing. Straight white men: that’s what I’m here for.