Paleo Retiree writes:
When I saw that NYC’s Public Theater was presenting a show entitled “Straight White Men,” my interest was piqued, to say the least. Since the Public has long been one of the city’s foremost purveyors of Politically Correct theater, I couldn’t resist wondering: What kind of awful, myopic, aggressive, stylish, grandstanding mess were they going to make of this particular theme? And when I saw that the play was written and directed by Young Jean Lee — a woman, and a hyphenate-American woman at that — my theatergoing fate was set. I had to buy tickets and take this thing in. Oooooo, was I looking forward to indulging my inner wounded reactionary. Oooooo, was I ever sharpening my knives and (to be frank) looking forward to writing a grumpy and droll blogposting.
So imagine my surprise when the play turned out to be nothing like the PC outrage I’d envisioned. No political finger-pointing. A total absence of ludicrously overdone agitprop. It features numerous laughs about oppression, racism and sexism, but they emerge from the straight white guys themselves, who are self-aware enough to be able to joke ruefully about how everyone these days assumes they’re wicked and evil just because they’re straight white guys. The play may be, in a general way, in the hard-hitting, confrontational / controversial / provocative mode of David Mamet and Neil LaBute, but despite the title, the profane language, the physical rambunctiousness and the boldness of some of the theatricality, it has a rather sweet and mild heart.
It also has an often wonderful sense of humor. It’s Christmas — these aren’t just straight white men, these are straight white Christian midwesterners — and a family’s three sons have come home to celebrate the season with their recently-widowed father. The sons are all grownups, but they tease, josh and rumble with each other like 13 year olds. Watching them razz each other and blow off their energies is often hilarious. Watching them do their awkward white-guy best to give Dad, who isn’t as on-the-ball as he used to be, the respect he deserves and to tend to — horrors! — personal emotions is often hilarious too. Straight white guys have got their own ways of tending to these things, you know?
Sad to report, though, that the play isn’t a total success. It may be shrewd, generous and resourceful in many ways, but it’s also a bit schematic. The sons are ranged along a continuum: one’s a banker who doesn’t give a fuck this way or that about morality; one’s a writer and professor who worries about purpose and experiences some qualms of conscience; and one brother is so consumed by his morality and politics that he can barely function in the world. Each of them could use a character-dimension and a personal-quirk more than he’s been given.
And while the humor and performances are sterling, the drama is pffffft. One reason for that is that the show gives off all kinds of odd signals. Take the stage set, for example.
How do you read it? Cheesy bookshelf, brownish / off-white-ish fake-leather seating, unused exercycle, tacky track lighting … To my eye, that room says “something between a lower middle class suburban house and a dude’s very first grownup apartment” — Archie Bunker shares a place with Two and a Half Men, more or less. In fact, we eventually learn that the family is meant to be upper middle class. WTF? Even more baffling: while the sons are exuberantly irreverent, profane and rowdy, while the father made his money as an engineer, while this is the midwest … despite all these indicators, we’re asked to believe that the family is a family of liberals. Neither my wife nor I ever quite got over our shock. This is apparently meant to be something like Whit Stillman territory; it’s a world my wife and I know (via cousins and schoolmates) pretty well. Yet the characters are liberals? Dems can be found in this world — but they’re rather rare on the ground, and they usually belong to academic, culture-oriented or dropout sorts of families.
The Question Lady and I spent some time after the play trying to come up with a plausible reason why the director / writer chose to make the family liberal. Our best guess: because she didn’t want the urban audience to dismiss her characters out of hand as evil freaks — as, you know, Republicans. Wanting to win the audience over and entice them into some sympathy with your characters isn’t a terrible impulse. The play’s point of view, when you come down to it, is that white guys once had it all in the U.S., that modern life is passing them by, and that they’re becoming irrelevant. And it wants us to spare a little sympathy for their situation. It’s a debatable point of view — I don’t think white men have become anything like a passé, trivial factor in current American life — but for the sake of an evening at the theater it should a workable one. The problem is that the drama that Young Jean Lee has come up with to illustrate and embody her point of view is so lame. It consists entirely of: one of the brothers is mysteriously sad. Much — too much — is made of his mood problem; none of the other characters get an arc of their own. So the drama, such as it is, seems bolted onto the absurdist sitcom that is the rest of the evening.
All that said: props to Young Jean Lee for a lot of excellent laughs (I really got the giggles a few times). Hire that woman to jazz up your cable series now. Kudos to a cast of inventive and creative performers. And some genuinely awestruck thanks to everyone involved for creating and selling some convincing (if somewhat one-dimensional) straight-male characters. I never once winced and thought “Why do chicks always think we straightguys have the same emotional lives girls do?”, let alone, “Why do gays always think we straights are repressed gayguys?”
One meta-giggle that the Question Lady and I both enjoyed while watching the play: most of the straight white males in the theater that evening were on the stage. Theatergoing has become such a non-straightguy thing in NYC that straight white men are an endangered species. Aside from some big, square, dumb, family-oriented Broadway shows, why should straight white males be interested in NYC theater these days? What’s in it for them? It’s become a female, gayguy and multiculti artform. So we thought it was awfully witty of Young Jean Lee to reintroduce the species back into the theater by putting some examples of it on stage. The gesture worked. “It’s like porno for the audience,” I whispered to the Question Lady at one point. Around us, rows of gay, female and “ethnic” audience members were gobbling up the chance to do what’s usually forbidden: to give some concern to these exotic creatures. And that’s how the play functioned best: as ethnic humor, something like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” only about WASP guys. These days, it seems, WASP guys are ethnics too.
- The New Yorker visits with Young Jean Lee. I couldn’t finish the piece, which exemplifies the kind of heavyhanded PC theater nonsense that the play itself was relatively free of.
If portraying them as conservatives or Republicans was such an unthinkable choice, then the purpose is to suggest that straight white men, too, can count themselves as an embattled minority group, and join the liberal coalition of other embattled minority groups. From the description of the audience, it sounds like this suggestion is mostly to current members of the liberal coalition — don’t count the SWM’s out, the more groups the stronger the coalition, and so on — rather than to entice actual straight white men into joining the coalition.
It’s not as nutty as it sounds — look at how successful the Men’s Rights Activists have been at modeling themselves after radical feminists. Most of them are functionally libertarian, notwithstanding whatever branding labels they apply to their media packaging.
Ditto for whites who form their identity based on feelings of racial oppression, only against whites. These folks tend even more toward extremes, hence not conservative but experimental / liberal. They’re definitely not socially conservative.
These days in popular discourse, liberal means “sympathizes with society’s losers” and conservative means “sympathizes with society’s winners” (sadly, not an inaccurate summary of Dems vs. Repubs). Straight white men are losing their standing vis-a-vis other demographic groups, so why not join the coalition of downwardly mobile and oppressed groups?
“These days in popular discourse, liberal means “sympathizes with society’s losers” and conservative means “sympathizes with society’s winners”
I don’t particularly sympathize with either one of them – no wonder someone once called ma an “anarcho-fascist”, whatever the Hell that is. I’m certainly not a Democrat or Republican any more.
The set design looks more like an East Coast middle-class striver’s house. They’re way more obsessed with leather furniture as a status symbol, and they’re worse about having those clear plastic storage bins all over (seen behind the couch in the pic).
Since the intent is to clearly signal that the location is not the home of a gay, woman, or vibrant ethnic, they went with the local blandness that the audience would all recognize (that is definitely Long Island, not Midwestern). Cuz without fags, nags, and nigs, homes would devolve into the blandest looking place imaginable.
Midwestern would have folksy charm, and uncurated vintage pieces laying all around. This place looks like everything was bought in the last 10-15 years, with the pieces that the family grew up with thrown out or donated to the Value Village, whether little knick-knacks or large sofas and chairs. It has no roots — that’s what you’re getting at by comparing it to someone’s first apartment of their own.
Although it may not have been intended (the main intent being to argue that “SWM = bland”), the deracinated sterility of the set would heighten the anxiety of actual SWM’s watching the action. It’s a family setting, and family interactions, yet the place looks so unfamiliar, rootless, and in-flux. Not comforting like the set design of the living rooms in Roseanne or Family Ties, which were meant to be uplifting.
I received a New Yorker subscription for a birthday present, and the next morning after reading the Hilton Als profile of Young Jean Lee, I called to cancel the subscription. It sounds like the play is not as bad as I thought but is probably not at fun as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” or an outing at the Comic Strip. Thanks to you and the Question Lady for investigating!
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