Thursday, November 20, 2014

Straight White Men: Anthropology by Young Jean Lee

I thought I had reached a breaking point this year with the voices of straight, white male voices in theater.  But when it's Young Jean Lee doing the curating of those voices I'm willing to tune back in.

Based on conversations she had with straight white men, Lee has put together a play where a father (Austin Pendleton) and his three sons gather for Christmas. Eldest son Matt (James Stanley) is living at home after completing a PhD and drifting in low-level non-profit jobs. Middle son Jake (Gary Wilmes) is a banker, recently divorced, and a self-professed asshole. Youngest son Drew (Pete Simpson) is a professor and author. But when these grown men come home they turn into the children they were before--wrestling, teasing and torturing each other. But one night Matt starts to cry and the men then engage in volleys of support, interest, and disinterest.  But none are particularly equipped to vocalize their emotions without reverting to their own philosophies to try to "solve" the "problem" of Matt.

If you've ever had the uncomfortable experience of being a "problem" a man has tried to solve then you can relate to the way these well-meaning siblings descend on Matt and dive in with abandon--the same way they dig into a homemade pie with forks leaving crumbs and mess in their wake. 

As they casually talk about childhood experiences portraits emerge of these three men as boys-- Matt the social justice crusader who protested the all-white production of Oklahoma in high school, Drew called "Shit Baby" by his brothers after they made him eat his own shit at age 3, and Prick of the Pricks Jake hosting a game of Gay Chicken with his friends until Matt shut it down.  Even their father's role as parent is elucidated when he only just now learns they've called Drew "Shit Baby" for over 20 years.  For all the sensitivity that their mother tried to instill by making them play a board game called "Privilege" (a pasted over Monopoly game to make them more self-aware), any argument that they had a truly progressive childhood seems undone by their standard 1980's era (by my experience) antics. To be fair, a mom can only do so much in one generation.

So despite self-awareness, they still aggressively need to "understand" why Matt is a "failure" and how they can fix that. But even Matt cannot clearly articulate why he cannot quite balance his white privilege with the problems of the world.  Everyone has a theory and belligerently beats Matt up with their theories.  They are living their lives by those theories--so that must be the answer for everyone else.

The greatest takeaway from this production is it carefully (and sympathetically) illustrates the damage that men do...but in this instance the damage is inflicted exclusively on other men.  Matt is cut by his siblings and father's views of success, mental health, tough love, expectations, and disappointment. The agonizing scene where they try to demonstrate to Matt how to interview for a job reminded me of certain teachers I have had who thought the ONE way to teach was by emulation.  As if there is only one way to learn.  As if there is a singular approach to self-expression. 

The actors here are top-notch.  The scenes of their childhood are vivid and the inner children left to run rampant here in their childhood home are very present in this production.  You almost believe as the three brothers wrestle with each other behind the sofa, that young kids will emerge from the scrum.  Stanley is so tall and solid that it's fascinating to watch him seem so diminished by his physically smaller brothers.  Each actor moves with his own energy but authentic to their character.  Wilmes revels in the dickishness of his character but his skill really stands out when he has to get emotional.  His character's emotions are those of a young boy and it is that smart-alecky brat who starts to cry before us. It's a real transformation. 


Lee has the stage crew clear and clean the set between scenes with the lights up.  As I watched the crew do the cleaning, I was wondering if Lee was further infantilizing the men in this house who don't clean up after themselves. Or showing that most care-taking is coming from outside this family unit.

For how smart and well-drawn this play is, it is structured with detachment. Perhaps that is Lee's studious eye toward behavior.  Because as cutting as some of the words and actions were and painful as it was for the characters, I was still watching it from the outside as an observer.  This is not a negative.  It's just how she's subverting our POV to be with her behind the glass wondering at the  animals in this zoo.

Also best performance by a puffin pillow ever on stage. Thank you set designer David Evan Morris for the realistic, middle American living room with tiny, little puffin details.
 

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