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Straight White Men: Aliens

by | Feb 8, 2020 | Review | 0 comments

Men 2 Boyz. (Photo of Carlo Marks, Daniel Martin, and Sebastien Archibald by Tim Matheson)

The motto of Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company is “Destroy the audience!” and the Village Voice has crowned her “the queen of unease”. But Itsazoo’s production of Lee’s Straight White Men left me disappointingly untroubled and unimplicated.

In Straight White Men, which premiered in 2014 and made it to Broadway in 2018, we spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a widower named Ed and his three adult sons. Although Matt, the eldest, has been politically engaged for most of his life and he’s highly educated — he got a BA from Harvard and pursued a PhD at Stanford — he has apparently lost his ambition. Having moved back in with his dad, Matt is working a temp job at a community-service organization and helping Ed around the house. (It’s important to know that Ed isn’t frail in any way.) Matt’s fine with his low-key life, but it drives everybody else crazy.

Matt’s brother Drew, a writer, is convinced that Matt is depressed and he insists that Matt should go to therapy — which worked for Drew when he was in the dumps. All three boys have been raised to be sensitive to their advantages as well-off white boys — their mom invented a board game called Privilege — and brother Jake thinks that Matt is a hero, that he is deliberately martyring himself to make room for the less advantaged. (Jake needs a hero. Although his ex-wife his black and his kids are mixed-race, Jake is a self-confessed hypocrite: at the bank where he’s a high-powered operator, he excludes people of colour from meetings “because that’s what clients want.”) Ed, the dad, understands the world in terms of money: he keeps trying to push a cheque on Matt to pay off his student debt.

One mildly interesting thing about this is that Matt would be getting less hassle if he were a woman: culturally, we define men more than women in terms of ambition and accomplishment. And we’re more at ease with women being caregivers. But these are hardly surprising observations and they’re only relatively true.

Another thing: the play seems to operate on the assumption that there’s nothing wrong with Matt’s lack of engagement, but, conceptually, that’s soft. Matt tells us that he worked in Ghana teaching something that he knew nothing about to people who didn’t want to learn it. And he claims that every attempt he’s made to be helpful has been meaningless. You could frame that as an extrapolation of the notion that straight white guys can’t do anything right these days. But come on. The idea that Matt’s disengagement is justified is a reductive abstraction. If Matt really wants to be helpful, as he says he does, then he can ask where help is needed.

There are plenty of good things about the play and this production — and I’ll get to those in a minute — but, before I do, I want to say one more thing.

There are two more characters in Straight White Men: Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2, roles that must be cast using nonbinary people of colour. Presumably, the idea is to balance out all of the straight white maleness onstage. But the Persons in Charge really aren’t. They welcome the audience and, in this production at least, they mutely direct the stagehands during scene changes, but that’s it. Their presence is a hollow conceit.

So what did I like? The humour and the performances.

The script contains plenty of sharp gags. When they’re playing Privilege, one of the brothers picks up a denial card.  “I don’t have white privilege because it doesn’t exist,” the card says. And it comes with a penalty: “Get stopped by the police for no reason and go straight to jail.”

And, at least theatrically, Lee embraces the vitality of boy-on-boy roughhousing. When they’re rolling the dice playing Privilege, the brothers pretend they’re blowing the die out of their nose, or puking it up, or shitting it out. Maybe it’s just me, but I love this kind of slapstick transgression. The brothers jockey for the best chairs in the family room, they holler and spit water at one another, and, in an excellent surprise, when they get really, really mad, they dance it out (because that’s what their mom taught them to do).

That said, there’s something clinical about Lee’s observation of these behaviours — and the post-show discussion enhanced my unease about possible condescension. In the talkback, folks poo-pooed roughhousing as juvenile avoidance and, sure, that can be part of it. But I value the vitality — and physical intimacy — of roughhousing even though such pleasures are dismissed by the current dominance of a traditionally feminine perspective.

But back to the positive. I’ve never seen Carlo Marks act before but I’m eager to see him onstage again. His performance as Jake is smart, responsive, and physical. He’s an excellent listener. I also particularly appreciate Sebastien Archibald’s work as Drew. Archibald is one of those actors who could’ve been a dancer; because their performances are so visceral, they’re my favourite kind. Daniel Martin (Matt) and Peter Anderson (Ed) are both admirably grounded. And everybody’s comic timing is excellent. As Person in Charge 1, Kim Villagante is more assured than Raven John is as Person in Charge 2 — possibly because Villagante has more performance experience.

I’ve been looking forward to Straight White Men since I first read about it but, in person, it underwhelmed me. Lee’s approach is so deliberately anthropological that, to me, it feels schematic. I’m not straight but I am a white man and — wait for it — I don’t feel thoroughly seen or understood by this play. Fortunately, my status has other perks.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN By Young Jean Lee. Codirected by Chelsea Haberlin and Fay Nass. Presented by Itsazoo Productions. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, February 7. Continues until February 15. Tickets.


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