Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's recent review of Carousel
Young Jean Lee's incisive play Straight White Men would be an appropriate choice for Washington's Studio Theatre at any time, butthrough a coincidence of external eventsit now can take its place in the nationwide conversation about privilege and identity politics.
The playwright has created what appears to be a straightforward story of a father and three adult sons getting together for Christmas, but she's wrapped it in an abstract, almost subliminal frame that places the action in a wider context. A non-white, non-male Stagehand-in-Chief (Jeymee Semiti) addresses the audience before the play begins and oversees scene changes, and Andrew Boyce's diorama-like scenic design allows the audience in the Mead Theatre to see the stage manager at her desk backstage and actors making their entrances and exits.
Brothers Matt (Michael Tisdale), Jake (Bruch Reed), and Drew (Avery Clark) grew up with a father (Michael Winters) and mother, now deceased, who made sure they were thoroughly aware of the benefits they have in society; their mother even turned their Monopoly set into a "Privilege" game to help them focus on microaggressions and ethnic sensitivities. Jake is a banker, Drew a teacher and novelist, and Mattthe oldest and most promisingworks at a low-level job and looks after their father, a retired engineer. As they decorate the tree and drink eggnog, they reminisce about their teenage rabble-rousing days of guerrilla training in the backyard and rewriting showtunes with ideological lyrics.
What becomes clear, which director Shana Cooper emphasizes, is that the brothers may love and care about each other, but they can only relate to each other through an undercurrent of hostility and envy. Fight director Robb Hunter makes this literal as the brothers wrestle, grapple, and physically humiliate each other while tossing off insults and criticizing each other for making bad choices. In this family, everything must be a competition or stated ironically, not faced straight on.
The four actors, under Cooper's direction, have forged a believable family unit. Boyce's scenic design adds to the sense of humor with its bland off-white walls, beige carpet and tan upholstery, set off by Ji-Youn Chang's straightforward lighting. The high point among Helen Huang's naturalistic costumes is a matching set of hideous "Christmas pajamas" for the brothers.