The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. —Greek drunkard-god Silenus, quoted in Straight White Men by way of Friedrich Nietzsche
Straight White Men isn’t an adequate title for the 2014 play by Young Jean Lee, getting its Chicago premiere now at Steppenwolf Theatre under Lee’s direction. Something like The Allegory of Straight White Well-Educated Liberal Bourgeois Gen-X American Men From Good Homes would be more apt, if awkward. By turns funny, smug, compassionate, intentionally annoying, and just as intentionally didactic, SWM is a morality play—a kind of Everyman—for the current cultural moment.
Or a certain piece of that moment, anyway. As my revised title would indicate, Lee’s everyman isn’t really every man but a member of a very specific demographic. Fortysomething Matt has been to Harvard and Stanford and done good works in Ghana. He was a ferocious do-gooder in high school too. As portrayed by the sweetly charismatic Brian Slaten, he’s even a pretty good tumbler. But Matt has lately retreated back home to the midwest, where he leads an apparently aimless life, staying with his widowed dad, Ed, while working a measly temp job at a not-for-profit.
Matt’s drift is all the more evident because his two high-achieving younger brothers—banker Jake (Madison Dirks) and New York Times-reviewed novelist Drew (Ryan Hallahan)—are in town for Christmas.
And there beginneth the allegory: Jake and Drew are, of course, the white male faces of commerce and art, and Lee makes sure we understand how clubby they are. Long early stretches of SWM show them in unrestrained adolescent-regression mode, triggered by their return to the cozy family seat. They roughhouse over a video game, find gross things to do with dice during a board game, snack on crap, talk dirty, relive old adventures, and drink themselves sick.
Pater Ed (Alan Wilder) abets the general slide into juvenility by enforcing family rituals such as the Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese takeout. A preposterously good and jovial dad, he hangs stockings and supplies PJs for everyone, in matching holiday plaids.
The camaraderie gets stacked so high it topples over into archetype: puppyishness as an American male essence, echoing generations of post-WWII fraternal depictions from My Three Sons to Death of a Salesman. Still, these guys are no Neanderthals. They know how to speak the language of equity, diversity, and inclusion, thanks in large part to their late mom. That board game Drew and Jake play? It’s a politicized version of Monopoly she rigged up and called Privilege. (Sample card: “‘What I said wasn’t sexist/racist/homophobic because I was joking.’ Pay $50 to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”)
In short, they’re as socially evolved as they are goal oriented and successful. The good kind of white guys.
Matt’s listlessness is therefore a challenge for everybody, especially insofar as it’s a conscious decision rather than, say, a lapse in meds. He’s concerned that his very identity makes him a liability to the future. That the only equitable, ethical choice open to him as a scion of the hegemony is to abdicate his position in it. After the events of November 8 we can see he’s kidding himself: yet another intellectual so enthralled with his crisis that he misses the main play. But he makes an interesting point. As a member of the boom generation, I’ve often thought how we can’t help but destroy everything that attracts our attention; Matt believes he’s part of the next rank of locusts.
On that score SWM can be thought of as a variation on the scene in Independence Day where the U.S. president asks an alien, “What is it you want us to do?” only to have it reply, “Die.” Lee isn’t without sympathy for Matt’s situation, though. (Why should she be when that situation smacks so much of authorial wish fulfillment?) In fact, she seems at times to have greater regard for him than for her audience. We enter the theater to hip-hop specially selected for the sexual candor of its lyrics and played at black-ops-site volume. Next we’re taken in hand by two people “in charge,” who feel called upon to educate us about gender fluidity. It’s an effective alienation device but a cheap and condescending shot, suggesting that Lee sees the people who’ve come out for her show as 280 seats worth of cultural/racial/regional/class complacency in need of a shock. Maybe we are, but then again maybe we’re not. v