New Rep's "Straight White Men": Monopoly Is Not a Bored Game

Michael Kaye, Shelley Bolman, Dennis Trainor Jr & Ken Cheeseman in "Straight White Men"
 (photo: Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
Upon entering New Rep's Mainstage Theater for a performance of Playwright Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, (having just closed on Broadway), one is assaulted by irritatingly loud music; this pre-show music is just the first of several intentionally confrontational challenges to come. It's Lee's intention to create a feeling that the play is to be performed under the control of people who are not straight, white, or men. She states in the program that this is the goal not only of the music but also the “curtain speech” (appropriately not announced by the company's Artistic Director Jim Petosa). Even the transitions between the three “acts” (actually extended scenes without any intermission) are all under the supervision of the “Person in Charge” (Dev Blair), a non-binary performer of color (in the New York production, two persons). The setting is a rumpus room in an undisclosed locale wherein the Norton family gathers ostensibly to celebrate their traditional (secular) rituals of Christmas. These rituals include multiple incidents of immature horseplay that seem to be their primary means of intercommunication, along with synchronized dancing (yes, you read that right). What evolves is a surreal negative mirror of the old television sitcom “My Three Sons”, a family selfie that thrives on a sort of warped vision of basically toxic masculinity. It's apparent that this play is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, nor is it a tragicomedy, but a non-binary work along the spectrum of theater pieces.

The family consists of the father, Ed (Ken Cheeseman), his youngest son Drew (Michael Kaye), the middle son Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr), and the eldest sibling Matt (Shelley Bolman). Ed is intent on preserving the family rites, from the stockings hung by the chimney with care to their annual feast of Chinese takeout to the battered old Monopoly game repurposed by their late mother and rechristened “Privilege”, in an effort to instill in the good old boys the maxim once uttered by JFK, that of those to whom much is given much is required. Certainly that's still the view of Ed as he reminds Matt (who's seemingly going through a rough period and has come home to live with his father) that much has been “invested”. Drew, apparently the recipient of one too many psychotherapy sessions, castigates Matt for what he calls underachievement, of not sufficiently loving himself, while banker Jake accuses him of not successfully selling himself. Drew goes nastier with his declaration that Matt suffers from low self-esteem, a loser “for no reason”. Much of this familial angst goes unresolved, but that doesn't diminish its insights and thought-provoking challenges to an audience's predispositions. Matt (and we) are left with the quandary of “how to be useful”.

Much has been made of the fact that Lee is Broadway's first female Asian-American playwright with this (only her tenth) play. More impressive is the fact that such a relative newcomer could land so solidly on Broadway at all. As here Directed (and presumably Choreographed) by Elaine Vaan Hogue, with apt Scenic design by Afsoon Pajoufar and pluperfect Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, as well as efficient Sound Design by Lee Schuna, it's quite a debut. It's a true original, with considerable food for thought. Even with such a wondrous cast, one could wish for some trimming in the dancing scenes, allowed to continue long after making a point. Otherwise the direction and storytelling are brilliant.

Vann Hogue references Lee's position that straight men can't make the world more diverse by doing whatever they want; there are expectations on them that require them to do something. In the end, what values do we want straight white men to espouse? Do we wish Matt would align himself with the traditional patriarchal structure? What do we want anyone to do, what do we value, really? Find out at New Rep, through September 30th.


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