In “Straight White Men,” Young Jean Lee’s cutting but deeply humane satire about straight white male privilege and pain, Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and, in an especially heart-wrenching performance, Paul Schneider play three brothers with mid-life issues. In director Anna D. Shapiro’s super-smart production, the bros are first observed as they go through the family Christmas rituals with their widowed father Ed (Stephen Payne), who’s in on all the goofy jokes.
Actually, it takes a while to get to this opening scene. In a head-scratching pre-curtain turn, preceded by a few minutes of assaulting rap music (coming after you, sound designer M.L. Dogg!), two weirdly costumed interlocutors of indeterminate gender, played by Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, pointedly let the audience know that they, the so-called Persons in Charge, are the real persons in charge. The men in her play, Young Jean Lee is determined to show us, are her puppets and playthings.
Once released from the feminist talons of the pre-show, we’re in a midwestern home on Christmas Eve. In Todd Rosenthal’s ultra-naturalistic design, that presents itself as a saggy sofa, a baggy easy chair, the bottom half of an undecorated artificial Christmas tree, a beat-up coffee table, and a mantelpiece hung with four Christmas stockings that will soon be filled with plastic-wrapped candy canes.
Ed, the widowed father of this male household, looks on indulgently as his three grown sons, who are all in their 40s, perform their brotherly rituals. That means beloved old routines like fighting over who gets the iron (which earns an “undervalued domestic labor bonus”) in a game of “Privilege,” the family’s tell-it-like-it-is version of Monopoly, and giving an impromptu performance of “Oklahoma!” that features a chorus line of Ku Klux Klansmen and earns kudos for choreographer Faye Driscoll.
The re-written version of the play seems to have extended and pumped up the fun and games from the original version that played downtown at the Public under the playwright’s own direction. But who would begrudge this super cast a few extra laughs? Charles plays an inspired game of “Privilege” and Hammer is especially fetching rubbing his sore nipples after one of these bro-on-bro matches.
The brothers are such cut-ups, it’s worth reminding ourselves that they are grown men, all in their 40s, and each burdened with real-life issues. Drew, the successful brother played with such a sunny disposition by Hammer, may be a teacher and a published author — but where’s the new novel? Charles’s put-together Jake may be a prosperous banker and all — but how does he feel about his recent divorce? As for Schneider’s super-sensitive Matt, the Harvard graduate with the most promising future, how fulfilling is that low-performance job with the non-profit charity, anyway?
In the spirit of the season, no one brings up such touchy subjects until, quite unexpectedly, Matt suddenly breaks down and starts crying for no good reason. The playwright pens such smart and funny bro-banter that the audience is as shocked as the rest of the family. Dad thinks that Matt is worried about his heavy student debts. Drew thinks that Matt is clinically depressed. Jake thinks Matt should just be left alone.
At some point, all this concern centers on whether Matt is unhappy because he’s not living up to his potential. Granted, Uncle Andrew drives a truck, and come to think of it, Dad could have made more of himself than becoming a civil engineer. But Matt was always the shining star among these golden boys, and his breakdown unnerves them all. Was he not really the dedicated do-gooder who volunteered to work in Ghana, cheerfully teaching things he didn’t know to people who didn’t need or want them?
Although the play touches on many issues that haunt smart, well-educated straight white men, the real question is whether it’s honestly okay not to live up to your full potential. In deconstructing the lives of these white men with all their privilege and power, Lee discovers hidden levels of deep discontent — let’s bite the bullet and call it unhappiness — that indicates the kind of existential human pain common to the human condition. To the naked eye, these privileged guys may seem to have it easier, but in their heart of hearts, they feel the same raw pain as the rest of us.