“Straight White Men” @ Steppenwolf

“Straight White Men” @ Steppenwolf

Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce

2.5 out of 4  

In an ideal world, the final image of a play should tell you something. It should leave the audience with a sense of what meaning should be derived from the play they just watched. In the case of writer/director Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at Steppenwolf, that image is of Matt (Brian Slaten), the eldest of three adult Straight White Male brothers, sitting on his father’s couch and looking directly at the audience. From that, I was left with a surprising feeling of identity. As a non-white man who spent most of the play feeling like I was definitely not the target audience, that caught me off guard. But, perhaps that is Lee’s intention.

This play is clearly aimed at a certain demographic. It’s Lee’s open arms to the Straight White Male group saying, “we understand you have problems too”. A noble gesture to be sure, especially in a time where those who fall under the SWM demographic seem to be made the enemy by default. But this attempt at understanding came off shallow. The play, both in plot and in design, echoes any number of sitcoms where white men seem to be doing a lot of sitting around and talking about things of very little consequence. Two and a Half Men immediately comes to mind.

Jake (Madison Dirks) and Drew (Ryan Hallahan) are home for the holidays at their dad Ed’s (Alan Wilder) home. Recently, the most promising of the sons, Matt, has been living with his father. Matt is jobless, save some temp jobs. The rest of the play is a simple debate: Is the fact that Matt isn’t living up to what his father and brothers think his life should be a bad thing that means he needs therapy for depression? Or is it an honorable move to shirk his privilege to give minorities/others more opportunities in the work force? Or neither? This is the crux of a play that tries to grapple with what it means to be a white man saddled with privilege. 

On one hand, I can identify and I believe most people can as well. Who hasn’t been subject of a family member or two expecting greater things than perhaps you want? But on the other hand, is this a story that really needs to be told? Lee herself admits that this play was an exploration of a world outside of her comfort zone. This is perhaps why the play feels hollow. It’s an interesting exploration of what it means to be born into expectations. Not necessarily even privilege, just expectations. What do you do when those expectations aren’t what you want?

Madison Dirks (Jake), Ryan Hallahan (Drew) and Brian Slaten (Matt) in Steppenwolf’s production of  Straight White Men , a Chicago premiere written and directed by Young Jean Lee. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Madison Dirks (Jake), Ryan Hallahan (Drew) and Brian Slaten (Matt) in Steppenwolf’s production of Straight White Men, a Chicago premiere written and directed by Young Jean Lee. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This idea has me struggling with this play. That fundamental idea is so universal (and Wilder, Slaten, Dirks, and Hallahan have the chemistry other companies dream of) that it’s hard not to appreciate the play. But the setup, including the thumping music playing in the theatre to start and the non-binary actors handing out earplugs and confusingly placing actors in positions to start scenes like a bad improv game leaves the production as a whole simply confusing. 

Young Jean Lee has a tricky play here. She explores a question that is worth exploring, but it comes off feeling more like a coddling of the SWM in the audience. It doesn’t feel quite like a coherent piece. Yet, despite my inability to find an emotional foothold in this play of repetitive arguments, I still wound up identifying with Matt’s plight. I can’t say I’d see Straight White Men again. But I can easily say it’s been on my mind for a while.

Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men runs now through March 19th in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theater (1650 N Halstead). Tickets are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.

Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.