A play with the title of Straight White Men is bound to arouse certain expectations, and Young Jean Lee’s work, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre, meets some of them, while at the same time leading the audience in some unanticipated directions.
There are indeed straight white men onstage, a more or less recognizable family known as the Nortons: three adult sons and their father gathered together for the Christmas holiday. They are boisterous, physically affectionate, and sharing a lot of laughs about their past, even extending into playing a board game called “Privilege” their mother designed to remind them of their status in society and how lucky they are in comparison to others.
Those “others” are represented to some degree here, too, in the characters of Person in Charge #1 and Person in Charge #2—who greet you as you enter, introduce the show, and ultimately take to the stage to move about their puppet-like dolls, the Nortons. The two—played by gender nonconformist JP Moraga and transgender black woman Sandra Caldwell—remind us of those who have long been excluded from traditional society. And they, along with the rap music by female artists that blasts you, and the framing device of the silver tinsel curtain and the show’s title hanging over the stage like a museum exhibit reference, might have you thinking the play is going to be a pointed, wicked satire.
There is humor in Lee’s play, of course, but there is also some sympathy for its men. As they sit around scarfing down Chinese takeout while crowded onto one couch, or decorate the Christmas tree, or deliver a much-altered version of the title tune from Oklahoma!, we gradually become aware of some deeper concerns at work.
Jake (Justin Adams) is a successful banker, recently divorced, who has biracial children he’s not with at this holiday season. Drew (Matt Koenig) is a writer and teacher who’s convinced he’s benefited hugely from therapy, which is what he suggests for brother No. 3, Matt (Jess Prichard), once the star of the family, who’s returned to live at home with their widowed dad, Ed (Phillip Clark), who’s glad to have him around. At least, he is before Jake and Drew point out that maybe Matt is clinically depressed, doing laundry and running errands (like a woman, perhaps, or a servant) instead of reaching for the higher goals he obviously should be.
There’s a lot packed into the 90 minutes (with no intermission) of Straight White Men, and there’s plenty of room for audience members to form their own opinions of the men who reveal themselves to us here. One can admire the openness of Lee’s approach while at the same time feeling that the play’s ending, while not a shocker, is abrupt.
But the performers, under the direction of Kate Alexander, work with a great deal of energy and insight into their characters. Prichard may have the most sympathetic role; he embodies Matt, with his rather shambling gait, downcast eyes and desire to be left alone about his present and his future, convincingly and touchingly. Given all that we read and hear in the news today, should we care about the plight of the straight white male right now? Well, maybe at least this one.
Straight White Men continues through March 1; for tickets call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.