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‘Straight White Men’ at Steppenwolf: Cheer up, Hamlet; oh, wait, is that the face of happiness?

Submitted by on Feb 22, 2017 – 11:03 am

The boys and Dad, from left: Drew (Ryan Hallahan), Jake (Madison Dirks), Matt (Brian Slaten) and Dad (Alan Wilder). (Michael Brosilow)

Review: “Straight White Men” written and directed by Young Jean Lee, at Steppenwolf Theatre, extended through March 26. ★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

For a play as benign as Young Jean Lee’s curiously titled “Straight White Men,” this glimpse into the man cave of three grown brothers and their father at Steppenwolf Theatre surely will engender the debate for which it ultimately begs.

The title strikes me as a joke so far inside that it exists only in the playwright’s mind. Much is made, in promotion of the play, of the creative proposition set forth by Lee, a Korean-American woman: If I were a straight white guy, how would I behave in the circumstances that push this story forward? Or something like that.

The crazy days of boyhood come back for brothers Drew (Ryan Hallahan) and Jake (Madison Dirks). (Michael Brosilow)Frankly, that rhetorical question does not seem especially interesting to me, but at least up to a point, I found Lee’s play engaging and funny, the four men plausible characters, their brother-to-brother and father-son interactions credible. Here’s the set-up:

It’s Christmas Eve, and brothers Jake (played by Madison Dirks), a well-off banker, and Drew (Ryan Hallahan), a successful writer, have come to spend the holiday at the home of their widowed father (Alan Wilder) and the third brother Matt (Brian Slaten), who has moved back in after breaking off the quest to make his mark in the world.

Though Matt, who is the eldest, says little, he is acknowledged by his brothers and father alike as the truly brilliant one among them; and his turning into a sort of maiden aunt, content to help around the house, becomes a matter of growing concern that swiftly evolves into exasperation, anger and repudiation, indeed rejection.

Wake-up time for Drew (Ryan Hallahan) courtesy of brothers Matt (Brian Slaten, left) and Jake (Madison Dirks). (Michael Brosilow)The three brothers have grown up in an intellectually stimulating household, and their banter – not least with their father – reflects those mentally vigorous formative years. It’s not about being self-consciously snobbish; these are guys who have always rough-housed, got funky and played stupid pranks on each other. They just happen to be a family of smart people, Dad included, who like to challenge each other. This isn’t another play about family dysfunctionality. Maybe.

But what about Matt? Why is he back home with Dad? Why isn’t he out there excelling? These questions especially trouble Drew, the writer, who is convinced that Matt is depressed. But Jake the banker says nah, Matt just needs some time to find himself. Dad agrees.

Drew, however, is sure it’s depression and begins to harangue on the point, even confronting Matt about it in front of Jake and Dad. Matt waves him off, insisting that he’s fine. He can offer no explanation for his absolute lack of drive to become successful at something, to measure up to his potential, as most people might say. He says he’s perfectly happy.

Matt (Brian Slaten) has dropped of the race to success out but insists he's content. (Michael Brosilow)Nonsense, replies Drew. And a rather tedious, schoolyard-like back and forth ensues: You’re depressed. Am not. Are, too. Jake and Dad tell Drew to lay off, but the worried brother keeps hammering on what is to him an obvious case of clinical depression. This goes nowhere – until Jake and Dad begin rethinking Matt’s contention that he is not depressed: If that’s true, what’s he doing sitting on his backside when, brilliant as he is, he could be doing something useful with his life: This behavior is absurd, ridiculous, contemptible. Now it’s Drew’s turn to defend Matt from Jake and Dad.

To say this does not end well would be true but also insufficient. The viewer is left to decide – about several things, actually. Is Matt kidding himself, and is Drew right that his brother is depressed, psychologically hamstrung? And if not, if he’s fine but simply wants nothing to do with the convention of getting ahead and shining his light, well, what about that? Is that OK, to drift though life, puttering about the house, keeping great potential tucked away in – what, a safe, non-threatening place?

And, of course, there’s this: The aforementioned maiden aunt. What if Matt were not a brother and son but rather a sister and daughter? Would this, shall we say, retreat into domesticity be viewed by the guys as less vexing, less wasteful? A bundle of cultural values are called into question here. I’ll give that to the playwright. I’m just not sure the exercise adds up to a finished play.

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