If you laughed aloud at the film Dumb and Dumber, or think fart jokes hysterical, then this show’s for you. Before curtain, the audience is subjected to deafening hip-hop music and club lights. Purposeful discomfort is, we’re told by “persons in charge,” a kind of moral lesson. “Nonbinary” Kate Bornstein and “two-spirit member of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations,” Ty Defoe, want us to feel what it’s like “when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account.” Get it?
Kate Bornstein, Ty Dafoe
The two spacily dressed actors (genuinely ugly costumes by Suttirat Larlarb) appear on stage after the prologue only to gratuitously lead characters to a new scene. Perhaps playwright Young Jean Lee, insecure about script content, thinks she has to constantly remind us some of the world leads a less entitled life. By the way – none of the play’s characters, like these – are of the LGBT community. “Tonight Kate and I are going to try to find some understanding of straight white men.” Uh huh.
Ugly visuals continue with Donald Holder’s otherworldly red and blue lighting of Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s middle class, Midwestern family room. Though shelves are chock-a-block with board games, DVDs, and what appears to be a series of kids books (as if his 40-something sons were still boys), it’s the home of patriarch Ed Norton (Stephen Payne), their widower father.
Christmas Eve. We open with Jake (Josh Charles) playing Nintendo while Drew (Armie Hammer – cue female audience applause) loudly sings the baby-like “I’m A Little Airplane,” flaps, obstructs, and generally interferes. The two then begin a board game called Privilege created by their mother to teach values (another method by which the playwright injects principles she couldn’t work into dialogue?) sneezing and farting on each other’s playing pieces. At first one thinks the men are supposed to BE teenagers.
Armie Hammer, Stephen Payne, Paul Schneider
Dad and older brother, Matt (Paul Schneider), enter bearing a fake Christmas tree. They’ve been fixing Mrs. Johnson’s sink. One infers the gesture is neighborly, not professional. Jake, who was married to a “half black” woman, comments Mrs. Johnson is a racist. This from a banker who admits he won’t let nonwhite colleagues advance.
Drew, who had a Fuck Humanity Club in high school, teaches and writes radical attacks on materialism. Matt, the most educated of them, had a School for Revolutionaries back then. Pocketing Ivy creds, he’s moved back in with dad, and is temping file work for a community activist organization.
The brothers recall a musical Matt wrote in high school based on Oklahoma!. “We know we belong to The Klan/And The Klan we belong to is grand…” a la Springtime for Hitler (The Producers). Jake is teased about Santa Claus as if he were six, an age to which he instantly regresses. (Regression is frequent.) There’s joyfully infectious dancing (choreographer, Faye Driscoll) a la ‘Risky Business’ after which they all change into pajamas and tuck into a Chinese dinner. Then, Matt cries.
Over the course of three days, we hang with the four men. Drew and Jake, vastly heavy handed and immature, try to get to the root of Matt’s apparent depression. Though there are funny moments, most behavior is annoying, much of what’s said is cliché. His family not only misjudges Matt’s abilities and misinterpret his feelings, but eventually wreck what equanimity he has, imposing their own values.
All the actors are fine with Armie Hammer and Josh Charles standouts of commitment and credibility.
Kate Bornstein, Armie Hammer, Ty Dafoe
Director Anna D. Shapiro does a bang up job injecting ebullient physicality into the play. Every over-dramatized gesture, pose and tussle (fight director, Thomas Schall) is imaginative and well executed. Her work is eminently worth watching.
The evening of August 3, an alarm repeatedly went off in the theater accompanied by painful flashing lights on either side of the stage and sounds like running water. The first time this happened, the cast mimed, then gave up and exited till it passed. Every other instance, and there were many, they plugged on. There was no fix, no apology.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer, Paul Schneider
2nd Stage presents
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street