Young Jean Lee Offers an Anthropological Study of Straight White Men

New Rep Theatre presents the New England premiere of this provocative satire.

Michael Kaye, Dennis Trainor Jr, Ken Cheeseman, and Shelley Bolman in a scene from Straight White Men, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, at New Rep Theatre.
Michael Kaye, Dennis Trainor Jr., Ken Cheeseman, and Shelley Bolman in a scene from Straight White Men, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, at New Rep Theatre.
(© Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep Theatre opened its season with the New England premiere of Straight White Men shortly before the play ended its Broadway run. The presentation of Young Jean Lee's satirical comedy, with its dark undertones and conflicting themes, was an exciting choice for a company not particularly known for including edgy new dramas in their seasons.

The play centers around a white upper-middle-class family of four, a widower and his three grown sons, who gather together on Christmas Eve. The familial holiday events unfold realistically, except for a framing device that throws the viewer's assumptions into question: Just before the show begins, as loud rap music rains down from the speakers, a tall actor (Dev Blair) dressed in short shorts and glitter wanders the aisle and greets the patrons. By the time the house lights go down and this character delivers their opening monologue, it becomes clear that they (the character's preferred pronoun) are the puppet master of the evening. The other characters onstage take the poses arranged by them, use the props they orders, and generally behave according to their intentions. In short, straight white men are no longer in charge of the world on this stage.

Dad Ed (Ken Cheeseman) has brought together his sons: Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.), a prosperous banker who is coming off a divorce; Drew (Michael Kaye), the unmarried writer with several successful books to his credit; and their elder brother, Matt (Shelley Bolman), who is living at home with Dad and working for a temp agency, despite his Harvard degree. Most of the early part of the play is spent reliving the brothers' adolescent bonding games that include fighting, mock choreographic numbers, and fist bumps. Notably, there is no listening to each other or probing of each other's feelings or fears.

The tone changes abruptly when Matt begins crying during their Chinese food Christmas dinner. The brothers have varying reactions to this moment, from Drew's concern to Jake's order to just leave him alone. Dad worries that Matt's student loans have him upset and offers a check to pay off the balance. As the play continues to its baffling ending, with too much time in this production given to overlong bouts of physical sibling rivalry and an awkward dance scene, it becomes clear that these are not happy men, despite their inheritance of privilege.

Under the direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, the production feels forced, skimming only the surface of the relationships and Lee's motives as playwright. The actors seem neither to have the patience to be listening nor do they appear to hold any family ties. Bolman does carve out a convincing character as the man-child adrift but eager to be left alone, and Cheeseman's sympathetic dad feels genuine, until a moment in the play where the character has an unconvincing change of heart.

The action unfolds in a generic-looking apartment that could be anywhere, USA, designed by Afsoon Pajoufar. The costumes devised by Chelsea Kerl are character-appropriate but generally as indistinguishable as the men who are wearing them.

Lee, a South Korean-born female playwright of enormous credentials, has written a play that doubles as a sociological study. This family comes across as a sub-tribe of its own, repeating worn-out, leftover rituals that no longer suit the swiftly changing mores. Dad and his sons, despite education and tinges of doubt and guilt about their birthright, have been pushed from center stage by people of a variety of gender identifications and racial makeups, but with similar aspirations for success. Lee ends her play in equivocal fashion, as if the men of the title have yet to get it, or find a place in a brave new world that holds them in little regard.