New Repertory Theatre has kicked off its new season with a play that is a welcome but surprising choice for the sleepy Watertown theater company. Straight White Men, a provocative new work by experimental downtown darling Young Jean Lee, is both newer and more electric than what we’ve come to expect from New Rep. This is a good thing: The performance that I attended looked nearly full, a stark contrast to the noticeably empty houses I’ve been a part of over the last several years.
This satirical comedy, which recently closed in New York (making Lee the first Asian female playwright to have a play on Broadway), centers on three grown brothers who congregate at their recently widowed father’s house over Christmas. This may be a play about straight white men, but the show’s puppet strings, ever present throughout, are being controlled by people who are not male and (mostly) not white.
Lee successfully deconstructs the theater experience beginning with the booming rap music that blares before the play begins: The almost entirely white, upper-middle-class audience’s chatter is drowned out entirely by lyrics like “lick my pussy and my crack.”
“Normally when you pay money you can expect to be comfortable,” says Person in Charge (Dev Blair), who takes center stage in a sort of preshow announcement. “We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” this black, gender nonconforming performer says with a gleam in their eye.
And as the actors take the stage, they are posed and positioned by Person in Charge, arranging the straight white men in the cozy but unstylish living room diorama (designed by Afsoon Pajoufar), not terribly different from a caveman exhibit at a natural history museum. Such arranging will continue between the play’s other scenes, where Person in Charge orchestrates the scene changes with two female stagehands.
Brothers Drew (Michael Kaye), a successful author, and Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.), a douchey, barely divorced banker, roughhouse and tease each other, tribal traditions they’ve known since childhood. They are barely housebroken humans who make as much noise and take up as much space as possible; they are obnoxious. Their youngest brother, Matt (Shelley Bolman), was his high school valedictorian who graduated from Harvard but is now working a temp job and living back at home with their dad, Ed (Ken Cheeseman), who is recently widowed.
During their traditional Chinese Christmas dinner, Matt breaks down into tears out of nowhere and for the rest of the play, Drew, Jake, and Ed try to figure out why. Is he clinically depressed? Is it his crushing student loan debt? Did his brothers take their taunting too far? They refuse to believe that Matt could possibly be happy living at home and cannot wrap their minds around the fact that one of their own could have been born with every advantage and yet has failed to make anything of himself. It doesn’t just confuse them, it angers them. To throw their straight white masculine world even further off its axis, Matt has been doing the cooking, cleaning, and shopping since his mother died, woman’s work that his father finds repugnant.
For all of the intellect behind Lee’s play, the finished product only half works. Part of the problem is that much of the play is joyless, unfunny, and so downright obnoxious that I can only assume it is intentional. Elaine Vaan Hogue’s production is similarly pseudo-successful, though there is no chemistry between the brothers and the glacial pacing makes the show feel interminable.
Straight White Men divided critics and audiences during its Broadway run, a fate that also undoubtedly awaits this New England premiere. More admirable than enjoyable, it’s a fascinating and provocative theatrical social experiment. If only it were more articulate.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. THROUGH 9.30 AT NEW REPERTORY THEATRE, 321 ARSENAL ST., WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.