STRAIGHT WHITE MEN
By Young Jean Lee
Directed by Steven Kunis
Southwark Playhouse – until 4 December 2021
When the 2018 production of Straight White Men opened, it’s Korean-American author Young Jean Lee became the first ever female Asian writer to have a play on Broadway, which is pretty astonishing when you consider what a polyglot, multi-cultural city New York is. A long-standing darling of the avant-garde downtown off-Broadway theatre scene where she has her own company (and Straight White Men had It’s world premiere at the Public in 2014), Lee is known for creating plays that are punchy, free-form and adventurous.
Straight White Men is certainly punchy, abrasive even, but it’s a bit of a headscratcher. The framing device of having two Black trans performers (for this London premiere, the wonderfully engaging Kamari Romero and über glamorous Kim Tatum) open the show with campy banter and a Vogue-heavy walk-down that suggests we are in for a stage version of Pose, then having them return between scenes (the play is set at Christmas and at one point Ms Tatum murders – and I really mean that – a festive carol) doesn’t really add much beyond lending a certain spice to what is otherwise a surprisingly conventional script. Perhaps the idea is to completely wrong-foot the audience from the get-go but Steven Kunis’s production doesn’t seem to have the full measure of the contrast so the result is more baffling than bracing. It doesn’t help that, on the night I saw it at least, Tatum wasn’t on top of her lines and lyrics. If the idea is that we are on a wild, unconventional ride, then it needs to be snappy, sharp and clearly delineated. This show is none of those things unfortunately.
The main meat of the play is a depiction of a family Christmas for a trio of grown-up brothers and their widowered Dad. Younger brother Drew (superb understudy Simon Haines at the show I caught) is a successful author, newly divorced middle brother Jake (dynamic, complex Alex Mugnaioni) is a wealthy banker and the oldest, Matt, who had shown more brilliance and youthful promise than either of his siblings, is now running the family home, looking after their father Ed (Simon Rouse, spot on) and doing small jobs to make ends meet. He also seems to be suffering from acute depression. Charlie Condou is particularly good at projecting Matt’s brittle, bright exterior but with intimations of deep anxiety roiling underneath.
The jock-ish, boisterous camaraderie between the trio -sometimes cruel, sometimes downright crass, but almost always affectionate- is convincingly caught but commendably never descends into cliché. The reaction of go-getter Jake when he realises that his older brother is seriously underachieving not out of a deliberate desire to flick two fingers up at an imperfect world but for reasons much more fallible and humane, is very funny but also rather unsettling.
The between-scenes sequence where they dance together to camp disco tunes is entertaining but does nothing to illuminate the characters’ relationships nor the agenda of Lee’s script, raising yet more questions that aren’t fully resolved. The signage (including one that proclaims the title of the show…or is it a label for the quartet of central protagonists?) dotted above and alongside Suzu Sakai’s commendably realistic set, raises yet more questions: are we to take these guys at face value or are they being presented to us like exhibits in a museum?
Similarly, a scene change during which Tatum and Romero sort-of ransack the set we’ve all been looking at, stealing the spoils of white male privilege, such as sports trophies, a board game (Monopoly repurposed as ‘Privilege’ by the boys’ deceased Mom) and pulling out a rainbow flag (fine, but why?) is more confusing than significant, plus comes close to perpetrating some very unhelpful tropes. When the tables turn on Matt at the end they appear alongside him as he is forced to make changes in his life. It’s an interesting stage picture but it doesn’t connect with anything we’ve seen previously.
At least in this staging, Straight White Men falls between two stools: not outrageous enough and too esoteric to really spark conversation, but not funny enough to register as satisfying satirical comedy. It doesn’t have the courage to be as unconventional as it could be, nor the humanity to really bind us to the main actors. There’s some lovely work here (specifically that of the four principal actors, and some coruscatingly witty and perceptive dialogue by Young Jean Lee) but ultimately it’s a frustrating and only intermittently engaging night in the theatre.