Broadly speaking, straight white men have fucked up a lot of things for a lot of people. But as we reckon with the harm that many of them have caused, perhaps we might consider a few other questions:
What does it mean to be a straight white man? What should a straight white man be? And just how realistic are any of the expectations that any of us — including themselves — have of straight white men?
These are the questions that playwright Young Jean Lee (who is neither white nor a man) explores, but does not answer, in her 2018 play “Straight White Men.” The comedic drama is onstage now at Mad Horse Theatre Company, under the agile direction of Joshua N. Hsu. Raucous and profane but also startlingly nuanced, “Straight White Men” might not be quite what the title leads you to expect.
The main characters of “Straight White Men” are true to the title’s demographic: retired engineer Ed (Whip Hubley) and his three adult sons: Jake (Joe Bearor), a banker; Drew (Jake Cote), a writer; and Matt (Phoenix managing editor Nick Schroeder), a Harvard grad and human rights worker who dropped out of grad school and has moved home to keep widowed Ed company.
They all gather for Christmas in Ed’s boringly homey home of dark wood, books, and board games, ready for the kinds of regressive horseplay one might anticipate. But the mood shifts after a moment of unexplained sadness in Matt, which sends everyone into a tizzy of projections about what it means for a straight white man to be successful, useful and happy.
Lest anyone roll eyes at such introspection, Lee cleverly frames the men’s story through the gaze of two Persons in Charge (Maya Williams and Sabrina Gallego) who are not straight, white, or male. They swan into the pre-show house (which fairly throbs with explicit hip-hop) and introduce our evening’s framework: “It’s hard enough to listen to people you know,” says Gallego. “It’s much harder to listen to people you think you should ignore.”
So, it’s through a lens of curiosity and empathy that we’re primed to watch the antics: Drew jumps in front of Jake’s video game; Jake wrestles him to the ground and twists his nipples. Drew and Jake tell stories of teenage Matt pissing on his friends. Drew swings his ass over a board game to play-act shitting out a pair of dice.
But the men are more complex than their tropes. Jake, whose children are biracial, rages against racial bias and his own contributions to it. Drew writes against post-capitalist consumerism and wants to talk about feelings. Matt only pissed on his friends in protest of even worse toxically masculine acts. And the game that the brothers play, on a Monopoly board doctored by their progressive mother, is called “Privilege.”
Games and role-playing are actually a primary way these men interact, which gives the show a bracing rhythm and dynamism. The brothers shout out rap lyrics, posture in exaggerated bro fashion, and act out a childhood screechy-bird routine. They fake-fight, fake-hump, and execute complicated dance moves. (Kay Kerina’s choreography and Sally Wood’s fight choreography are stellar.) They enact different ages and versions of themselves. “God, I want it now,” Jake shouts about an apple pie, with the tone and pout of a five-year-old. In this constant progression of performances, the men’s identities sometimes seem to be inherently performative.
This performativity comes to a head in an unnerving playacting sequence. When Matt’s lack of “ambition” becomes a concern for everyone, Ed enacts a job interview with him. And when Matt doesn’t perform to the family’s standards, Jake jumps in to play Matt the “right” way.
The cast does a stupendous job of capturing the prismatic mess of belonging and division that is family, and that comes with holding competing ideas about what it means to be a good person as a straight white man.
Hubley makes mild-mannered Ed amiable and loving, while also clearly conveying his limits of understanding. As Drew, Cote’s comedy is wonderfully big and goofy, but he’s also affectingly deft in small moments: After a rare surge of real violence, the look on Drew’s face is one of a young boy’s confused terror.
Jake is high-energy and righteous right out of the gate. Bearor might modulate his intensity more over the course of the show, but he gives Jake some marvelous idiosyncrasies, like how the corners of his mouth twitch upward just before he messes with Drew; and he dials down Jake’s volume in breathtaking fashion in a key climactic moment.
And as Matt, Schroeder gives a superb, wrenchingly subtle performance. His Matt is often quiet, passive, and internal, a caretaker, in contrast to his hyper-externalized, demanding brothers. As Matt is drawn into a dance move or a funny voice, then withdraws again, we can see both the history he shares with these men and the difference he feels from them.
In the slight wincing of Matt’s eyes, as his brothers argue about self-esteem, happiness, and white men’s imperative to “not take up space,” Schroeder lets us glimpse the frustration and sadness of a man who can’t make his family understand who he is — in part because he can barely formulate it himself.
“Straight White Men” isn’t the play I expected. I didn’t expect its nuance to haunt me. I didn’t expect the poignancy of the family’s tragedy, which feels at once contemporary and somehow mythic. I didn’t expect to feel tenderness at any point in “Straight White Men,” and yet maybe we withhold it — from anyone — at everyone’s peril.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.