Depending upon your vantage point and genetic destiny, the term “straight white men” is bound to trigger a multitude of reactions. Some will suggest it is simply the most privileged subset on the planet, responsible for every abuse and evil known to humankind. Women in search of a mate (or even a date), might roll their eyes and utter the words “an endangered species.” Others will dismiss the whole thing by saying, “Oh, so last century binary.”
As for the men themselves? One might just shrug his shoulders and get on with life, while another might feel unduly maligned, even as he takes his place as the head of state or a corporation.
But here’s a little secret about Young Jean Lee’s play “Straight White Men,” now in its Chicago debut at Steppenwolf Theatre: Its unquestionably attention-getting title is a red herring. For the real subject of Lee’s play is neither race nor “white male privilege,” even if her story homes in on a white, Midwestern, middle-class family comprised of a widowed dad and his three grown sons. It is about the nature of ambition in a capitalist society, and the whole notion of who is considered a success and who a failure. And in many ways this is a class issue more than a sexual or racial one. Lee could just as easily have given us a middle class Korean-American family (perhaps with a few ethnic nuances), and many of the problems faced by these men would be almost identical.
‘STRAIGHT WHITE MEN’
When: Through March 19
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20- $89
Run time: 90 minutes
with no intermission
The production, directed by Lee — and, as always at Steppenwolf, exuberantly acted — begins with a purposeful if unnecessary aural assault, as “Yankin’,” a track by rapper Lady (and yes, I had to ask what it was) is blasted at eardrum-piercing volume. If you display discomfort, one of two self-described transgender minders/dressers arrives with earplugs, though these hardly buffer the noise. (And I value my hearing.) The whole thing felt more condescending than consciousness-awakening.
But onward and upward. It is Christmas Eve and Ed (Alan Wilder), a thoroughly decent, unassuming, good-hearted man — a retired engineer who still goes out on odd jobs to help neighbors and others in need — is ready to celebrate with his three boys. Among them is Matt (the ginger-bearded Brian Slaten), a thoughtful do-gooder type with a low-paying job at a non-profit organization that is well beneath the pay grade or prestige expected of someone with his high-profile education. Matt has moved back home, ostensibly to keep his dad company and to save money while paying off his student loans, but perhaps it also is to ease a certain loneliness and depression.
Arriving from elsewhere are Jake (Madison Dirks), a divorced dad and successful investment banker whose barely disguised frat-boy mentality comes with the casual aside that his kid is biracial, and Drew (Ryan Hallahan), the youngest, a darkly handsome fellow who already has won considerable acclaim as a writer, and admits to being a serial dater.
As with many of the brothers I’ve observed, there are plenty of tensions and jealousies at play, as well as deep affection. And while the three here seem a bit old for all the rough-housing (even if it includes a very funny, wholly entertaining competitive dance exorcism complete with twerking), the mix of one-upsmanship and genuine concern is realistic enough. So are the memories of their late, right-minded mother, who seems to have transformed a Monopoly board game into a teaching tool dubbed “Privilege.”
The long and the short of it all is that Jake and Drew are worried about Matt, a man of intelligence and high ideals who they view as an underachiever in need of therapy. They see their brother’s failure to excel as a manifestation of mental illness rather than the choice of a shy, overly sensitive man living in a world in which making a name for oneself (and this is not solely the goal of straight white men) is akin to seeking the holy grail. But the truth is, Matt’s pain is real; he simply sees life in a way wholly at odds with the society around him.
There are some charming moments along the way here, as when Ed stealthily stuffs the boys’ childhood Christmas stockings with white gym socks, or when all four men gather at a coffee table to eat take-out Chinese food, or when Matt meticulously vacuums up a bowl of potato chips, or when Jake tries (and fails) to teach Matt the slick techniques for acing a job interview. Yet there is nothing revolutionary about this play, even when Matt poses a basic question that many beleaguered souls (of all colors and sexual persuasions) might find themselves asking at moments: “Why do I have to have a career?”
Of course at the very same time some ask that question, there are millions of people who would give anything to just have a job. So if a career is the privilege Lee sees as belonging primarily to “straight white men,” she might want to talk to all those unemployed miners and factory workers who cast votes in our recent presidential election.