The current culture wars — in which straight white men are born privileged and BIPOC and queer minorities and women demand rights and representation — are all about power. The battlefield is circumscribed by those in charge, and everyone else is in a constant struggle to define the terms and stakes to their own advantage.
In Young Jean Lee’s stage play Straight White Men, now playing through June 24 at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, there are two “Persons in Charge” onstage; one reveals they’re nonbinary (Eleanor Philips), and the other is a queer person of color of Native American ancestry (Freddy Biddle). Following an overture of not-ready-for-prime-time rap music, the pair introduce the play before a shimmering curtain of Mylar strips, and between scenes (there is no intermission), they supervise the stagehands as they dress the set. They fulfill the patriarchal role of presenting the drama that unfolds.
It concerns four straight white men in one nuclear family: a widowed father, Ed (Mark Hofmaier), and his three grown sons — Matt (Mike Mihm), the oldest, a Harvard grad who’s living at home and working at a temp job; Jake (Andy McCain), an obnoxiously confident banker; and Drew (Carl Howell), the youngest, a writer and college instructor.
The setup, which is in a family room of a Midwestern home on Christmas Eve, feels a bit like a cage of lab rats. The brothers play a game of Privilege — a Monopoly set that the recently deceased mom had redesigned to teach her sons a lesson — and act out in stereotypically masculine ways, horsing around and relentlessly pranking one another. They also go through a few nostalgic Christmas rituals, probe each other psychologically, and, for reasons known only to the playwright and Persons in Charge, try to get to the root of how a straight white male can succeed in life, and thus be self-actualized and happy.
The younger brothers, divorced yuppie Jake and academic Drew, feel that Matt should be a paragon of achievement instead of living the life of a loser — cooking and cleaning for Dad, paying off student loans, not dating. Jake, who claims he’s not feeling guilty about his own exploitive-capitalist job, sees Matt deliberately rejecting the system as a political statement. Drew thinks Matt is depressed and in need of therapy. Dad wants to give Matt money to pay off his loans, so he’ll be able to go off on his own. Matt himself is a cipher: though he spontaneously starts crying at one point, he insists he’s fine and happy, has no greater ambitions, and doesn’t understand what everyone else is talking about.
The play was written during the Obama years and opened in 2014 at the Public Theater in Manhattan. A Steppenwolf production followed in Chicago in 2017, then a Broadway premiere in 2018, with Armie Hammer, Josh Charles, and Paul Schneider as the brothers. That made Lee — who was born in Korea, came to the U.S. as a child, earned her Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley as a Shakespeare scholar, and now teaches theater at Stanford — the first Asian-American playwright to get her work produced on the aptly nicknamed Great White Way.
The WHAT production is brought to life with professional gloss by director Sasha Brätt. The set by Justin Lahue (with costumes by Seth Bodie, lighting by WHAT producing artistic director Christopher Ostrom, and sound by Sam Sewell) is a slick evocation of a bland bourgeois home. The performers, all of them strong, are continually animated and physical, almost slapstick: McCain, as Jake, is clownishly self-aware; Howell, as Drew, is sensitive and self-absorbed; and Mihm, as Matt, keeps his gruff mystery intact.
The laughs they elicit are dark and nervous, arising out of awkward situations and tussles. In the end, however, Lee has not written a comedy. What starts schematically evolves into a real family drama in which it’s impossible not to take the characters seriously.
It’s clear that Lee sees the unknowability of Matt as an abyss, and, since her play is told from the outlier’s point of view, it’s not an exercise of navel-gazing by straight white men about straight white men. But there’s a central irony to the whole enterprise: why write yet another play that explores the personal issues of the privileged class when there are so many stories about people like the Persons in Charge, nonbinary and BIPOC, that never get told?
Ultimately, what matters is who you are and what you bring to the theater as a member of the audience. You may see yourself in the family onstage or you may see, instead, a group of toxic others. Straight White Men is an intense theatrical experience. As the first major indoor production at WHAT since Covid locked us down, it’s a high dive into the deep end of the pool. The audience may be checked for vaccinations and masked, but the drama is provocatively unsafe.
Bros and Pros
The event: Straight White Men, a play by Young Jean Lee
The time: Through June 24, Tuesday through Saturday (and Monday, June 20) at 8 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $15-$40 at what.org or 508-349-9428