In spite of the title ‘Straight White Men,’ Young Jean Lee’s play now on stage at Steppenwolf, there is more than one theme presented to the audience.
First, there is the question of what makes people uncomfortable. Before the play starts, audiences are subjected to exceedingly loud music with lyrics some might find objectionable.
However Elliott Jenetopuloes who is working on a platform for non straight white artists, and Wil Wilhelm who has acted at Northlight and other Chicago theatres, sashay through the aisles handing out earplugs if requested.
Jenetopuloes and Wilhelm introduce themselves as “They and “Them” before bringing out two of the play’s straight, white men and placing them on stage as if They and Them are responsible for the characters’ actions.
But before dismissing They and Them as a one-off, satirical conceit, know that the two, non-gender specific players reappear after intermission to again pose a couple of the characters on the set.
Then, there is the theme of how people are raised in a middle-class Midwestern home with high expectations regarding good education and career success.
The characters are Ed, a widowed, very understanding father played by Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder.
The other characters are Ed’s offspring: middle son Jake, a divorced banker and father of bi-racial children portrayed by Madison Dirks, a film, TV and Chicago theatre veteran, the youngest son Drew, a successful author, teacher and an advocate of therapy interpreted by Ryan Hallahan who has appeared at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Writers Theatre among others, and oldest son Matt, a Harvard grad who lives with his dad without any ambition except to be useful. Matt is played by Brian Slaten who has acted in films and with several repertory theatres.
Lee makes certain that audiences understand this family of straight white sons has been raised with social consciousness. Their late mother redid a Monopoly game and called it “Privilege.”
During the play, set as a family Christmas reunion, the sons play the game with one brother having to pick a “Denial” card that says “I don’t see race. Pay $200 in reparation.”
Another brother lands where he has to pick an “Excuses” card that he reads out loud. “What I just said wasn’t racist, sexist, homophobic because I was joking.” It says “Pay $50 to an LGBT organization.”
Delete the often portrayed issues of parent/ kids problems. Given the overabundant roughhousing more suitable to teenage boys than grown men, delete sibling rivalry. The final theme seems to come down to success in life.
Jake and Drew want their older brother Matt to do more than keep house for their father and temp at an entry level type of job at an agency he ought to be running. Jake shows Matt how to do a proper job interview but Matt can’t seem to copy it. Drew insists that Matt needs therapy but he disagrees.
Finally, Ed steps in to say Matt has to move.
The play would have been just as good without quite as much teenage-type male stuff or the idea in the play that a dad has to don a Santa suit when his sons visit as adults. However, it is well acted.
Details: “Straight White Men” written and directed by Young Jean Lee, is at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. now through March 19, 2017. Running time is 90 minutes. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.