La Boite’s Straight White Men, now playing at the Roundhouse theatre, seems an unlikely pick for this progressive company – but this is echoed in Young Jean Lee’s genesis for the play. She started by asking herself a question: “‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ and a play about straight white men sounds pretty uninspiring – don’t they get enough attention?”
However, the Obie-award-winning playwright has succeeded in turning the status quo on its head by producing a dynamic show about the majority as told by the minority. Straight White Men is a razor sharp comedy that is as entertaining as it is crafty in its provocation, complete with an absolutely stellar cast under the direction of Nescha Jelk.
The titular men are gathering for a family Christmas. Three adult sons: Matt (Hugh Parker), Jake (Chris Pitman), and Drew (Lucas Stibbard) return to their widowed father’s (Roger Newcome) home to continue their Christmas tradition, but with their mother gone it seems that they are really just a bunch of boys. They are behaving like their brash and goofy gender stereotype unrestrained by societal limitations would suggest… or are they?
Wrestling, teasing and obsessing over body function, the three brothers spend their time together winding each other up and eating Chinese food. As the holiday draws on we begin to understand the tidal difference between the types of men those boys have become. Privilege really does become a problem in very different ways for each of them.
While delightfully straight-talking Jake admits he has no social conscience, Drew is the ever-annoying know-it-all, try-therapy kind of guy who pushes everyone until they tell all. Matt, well… you want to like him, but he is lost to the very principles that should make him desirable. Rather than use his privilege to foster change, he dissolves away into nothingness by taking a low-paying, low-impact job so as not to take up too much space in the world. He is depressed and he is depressing – it’s the greatest shame.
What is wonderful about this piece is that it doesn’t attack the straight white male but picks up the construct of these in its entirety and spies on it with intrigue. This is how we wind up in the perplexing place where we hate the sniveling ‘I’m-sorry-I-exist’ Matt but delight in the unbridled yet perhaps a little offensive antics of Jake who has always hoped that his brother’s invisibility was enough to make up for them all.
There is a double trickery here. As the audience files into the theatre they are confronted with loud, thumping rap music. There is a disclaimer poster in the foyer advising audiences that the music is meant to be this loud and it will stop when the play starts (really, when the play premiered in NYC there were demands to turn if off). We are actually surrounded by the straight white male; they have infiltrated the audience because, after all, everything is about them.
It must be hard to present such a stark and “real” play without it becoming a yawn-fest but the four performers are impeccable and rise easily to the challenge. Chris Pitman’s Jake is especially joyful to watch; even when he was not delivering lines he was still in character in the background and creating a laugh with his expressions.
There is one more character that needs to be mentioned: a stagehand (Merlynn Tong,) who introduces the play and candidly changes the settings and interacts with the audience in between sets. Does she stand for the playwright? Is she reminding us that this whole thing is created by women? We notice a lot about the atmosphere when she shows up: we feel more at ease, she’s a little refreshing and perhaps the overall gaze of the room changes just a little.
Straight White Men is an absolutely fascinating social experiment if you are into that sort of thing. But even if you’re not, too bad: you were just a part of it. There is no better theatre than the Roundhouse for watching social experiments take their seats.