Broadway Review: “Straight White Men”

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic
  • Outer Critics Circle

When entering The Hayes Theater to see “Straight White Men, the audience is bombarded by loud music – so loud, one cannot speak to one’s neighbor. Person in Charge 1 (more later) approaches to ask if the music is too loud. If one answers ‘yes,’ one gets a free set of earplugs. If one answers ‘no,’ one finds out later that they are “privileged.” The audience learns in a pre-curtain sharing that the loud music (now stopped) is meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable. The only discomfort is the ensuing ninety-minute new play by Young Jean Lee.

Matt (a self-effacing but balanced Paul Schneider) lives with his father somewhere in the Midwest. He cooks for Ed (a compassionate and empathic Stephen Payne), cleans, bakes apple pies, sets up the Christmas tree for the annual Christmas Eve/Christmas Day homecoming, and provides emotional support for his widower dad. From all accounts it seems a mutually beneficial and mostly a healthy accommodation to a change in Matt’s life. Into this innocent father-son reunion, burst Matt’s brothers. Matt is out of work, volunteering, accommodating, kind, bright, and attentive. His working brothers, one a divorced corporate success and one a teacher receiving a full-time salary for teaching one class have none of Matt’s characteristics. Their arrival precipitates one of the most annoying sitcom episodes that pretends to have deep cultural meaning.

During one of many sitcom scenes, crowded on the sofa in matching plaid pajamas provided by Ed, the father-sons quartet share Chinese takeout while trash talking, texting, and drudging up childhood memories that are more juvenile in the present that they were in the past. During the conversation, Ed – who likes puffins – announces he is going on a cruise to Nova Scotia. This sparks a new round of puerile trash talk about Ed’s “puffin paraphernalia,” “General Tso’s Puffin,” “Puffin Fried Rice,” “Puffin Pot Sticker,” and “Moo Shu Puffin.” Much of this is directed toward Matt who, in exasperation, begins to cry.

This critical moment drives the remainder of Young Jean Lee’s play. Matt’s brothers Jake (an alarmingly juvenile Josh Charles) and Drew (an equally alarmingly juvenile but empathetic Armie Hammer) are convinced Matt needs psychotherapy, needs to move out of their father’s house, and use the Harvard education and talents he possesses to “better the world” as their mother would want him to. Jake lashes out at Matt calling him a loser. Generally, mayhem, insults, and silliness prevail throughout the rest of the play. Finally, after embarrassing and belittling Matt ad nauseam, Ed is forced to “man up,” grabs the reigns of tough love and evicts Matt. So much for straight, white men?

Are these entitled, judgmental, young, straight, white, successful men and their father supposed to be the epitome of Every-White-Straight-Man? Is their elitist behavior supposed to “shock” the audience? Is Young Jean Lee somehow trying to throw them and all straight white man a life raft in the turbulent sea of white privilege? Or is the playwright trying to use comedy as a way of exposing the deficiencies of being straight, and white, and male? Is the play an expose of the shortcomings and toxicity of the straight cisgender male? It is almost impossible to tell in this ninety-minute visit to the “museum tryptic” entitled “Straight White Men” the playwright has foisted upon the audience.

This critic relearned more about the role of straight white men in the history of humankind from the Persons in Charge (1 and 2) than from Young Jean Lee’s exhausting script. We learn from Person in Charge 2 Ty Defoe that he is “from the Oneida and the Ojibwe nations. My gender identity is Niizhi Manitouwug, which means “transcending gender” in the Ojibwe language.” We also learn from Ty that “This theater we’re all sitting in together is built on the land of my people.” And with just the hint of sarcasm he adds, “So Welcome.” A powerful summary of all that Ed and Drew failed to learn from their Mom’s version of Monopoly called ‘Privilege’ and what the audience fails to learn from sitting through “Straight White Men.”



“Straight White Men” stars Kate Bornstein, Josh Charles, Ty Defoe, Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne and Paul Schneider.

“Straight White Men” features scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by M.L. Dogg, choreography by Faye Driscoll and casting by Telsey + Company.

“Straight White Men” runs at The Hayes Theater (240 W 44th Street) on the following performance schedule: Tuesday – Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.  Tickets ($69.00 - $149.00) can be purchased by visiting the theater’s box office or visiting Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

Photo: Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, and Paul Schneider. Credit: Joan Marcus