Experimental playwright and New York stage provocateur Young Jean Lee isn’t exactly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of the well-made play. But with Straight White Men, her deliciously sly and surprisingly poignant look at the conundrum of white male entitlement, Lee’s satiric foray into formal realism, which she premiered last fall at the Public Theater, proves to be a tiger in sheep’s clothing.
The drama, which opens on David Evans Morris’ purposefully TV-generic family room set, takes place over the winter holiday as the three grown sons of genial Ed (Richard Riehle), a retired engineer and widower, reunite at their father’s house to celebrate Christmas. Drew (Frank Boyd), the youngest, is a college professor and successful writer of leftist novels; the cynical Jake (Gary Wilmes) is a wealthy banker; the Harvard-educated Matt (marvelously underplayed by Brian Slaten), the eldest, lives with Ed and works low-level temp jobs at liberal nonprofits.
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The boys roughhouse. They drink and share childhood memories. And everybody plays a round of “Privilege,” a witty modification of Monopoly created by their deceased, socially conscious mother to teach her sons, as Ed reminds them, “not to be assholes.” But perhaps most tellingly, everybody tiptoes around the subject of Matt’s “failure” to live up to both his early brilliance and the family’s high expectations.
To write the play, Lee reputedly conducted a survey of her Facebook friends on the qualities that they most valued in a straight white man. From those results, she created the overeducated and hyper-self-aware composite, Matt, a man who has so internalized his mother’s socially progressive mores and their moral indictments of his class, race and gender that he has reached a state of traumatic paralysis in his single aspiration to be useful and not make things worse. (Lee’s respondents reportedly hated the creation.)
Such playfully excruciating ironies permeate a production that is also leavened by the sheer physical delight of its uniformly superb ensemble (featuring dances by movement designer Faye Driscoll), and Lee’s penchant for elevating seeming banalities — like an extended sequence dealing with a spilled bowl of potato chips — into actions fraught with heightened mystery and meaning.
GO! Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through December 20. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.