This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
In a year when Donald Trump is one of the frontrunners for the GOP nomination, Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men may be the perfect holiday play.
If you're not sure whether I mean that sincerely or ironically or caustically that's keeping with the tone of Ms. Lee's play that just opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
The setup is pretty straight forward: the Norton boys are home for the holidays. It's Christmas eve and we're somewhere snowy back East. Dad's retired. Mom passed away a couple years ago so the boys, now in their 30's and 40's, are back for all the family traditions. Jake's a recently divorced successful banker. Drew's a college professor who's really happy to have found therapy. Matt? . . . well that's a little trickier. Matt's living with Dad.
The play opens with Jake staring out at the audience silently playing X-box. Now this either strikes a chord or sets off an alarm bell for you. The opening two scenes could be subtitled 'boys will be boys' or slightly less charitably 'the stupid things white teenage boys do and never outgrow.' There's the taunting, the rough housing, the music with a ton of bass. But all of this is a setup, sort of like an anthropological report on some distant tribe and their exotic customs so we can get to the heart of the matter.
The Norton family crisis is Matt. Now, by a lot of measures, Matt seems fine. But to his brothers there's something off. He's just not . . . well he's just not 'straight white male' enough. Heck, they even wondered if he might be gay. Which, of course, would be fine because then they'd know what was the matter. What's troubling is he appears to be that most threatening of things to the privileged white male: a failure.
Now, if Straight White Men had been written by, well, a straight white man it'd be a different experience. Part of what makes the play provocative is that Young Jean Lee is definitively not a white male but instead a Korean-American female. We can argue about what difference that makes but part of Ms. Lee's conceptual goal is to goad us into that conversation: to get us thinking about gender roles and white privilege.
Ms. Lee is the rare Asian-American female to receive a full production at Center Theater Group . . . and for a play without a single female or non-white voice. Couple that with Branden Jacob-Jenkins play Appropriate that just closed at the Taper -- a play written by an African-American where all the characters are, you guessed it, white.
This is both terribly disheartening and very exciting. Disheartening that the key to diversity in the American theater seems to be to have everyone write plays about white people. But exciting that Center Theater Group may finally be rediscovering its political voice.
Straight White Men plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through December 20.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo: (L-R) Richard Riehle, Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd and Brian Slaten in Straight White Men (Craig Schwartz)