Imagine that Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee had written a script that roughly follows this set up---
Two grown sisters are returning to the family home to share the holiday (Christmas? Seollal?) and treasured family traditions with their eldest sister and widowed mother. The eldest sister had quite the promising resume—maybe literary degrees from some of the finest universities offering such, and perhaps some early recognition of plays she has penned. These days she seems to only want to tinker around the house doing repairs and the types of chores their late father used to do. Like all holidays, food is at the center. During one of the first holiday meals together this elder sister breaks out in tears, but then says nothing is wrong. The story continues from there…
Steppenwolf Introduces us to Young Jean Lee
That’s exactly the story that Young Jean Lee has NOT written. It is the story that follows her script in an imagined parallel universe that swaps gender and cultural/racial identity of the characters.
For Lee, this imagined plot might be way too close to home. In the program notes we learn that Lee aims to tell stories that get her out of her comfort zone. Lee says, “I was more curious about the question, ‘If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight white man, what would I do?’ That’s where the existential crisis came up for me, because it would be one thing if I woke up as a straight white man who never thought about his identity and enjoyed his privilege unthinkingly—that might feel kind of good. But if I were to wake up with my own brain in a straight white male body, it would be completely problematic..”
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is full of laughs
If this sounds a bit cerebral, know not to worry. Straight White Men, which aims to roil below the surface with an exploration of gender and race identity, packs a gag per minute and keeps you laughing most of its 90-minute run. We watch grown men revisit the bathroom humor that still tickles them the most, with fart and body function jokes galore. We get Vaudeville style parodies of race, class and gender privilege, and feel as if we know the highly intelligent woman who was their Mom, ever trying to insert estrogen-laced reason into her sons’ growing noodles. We get glib one-upsmanship the way only brothers who know each other so well can do.
Better, we get four actors who infuse their lines with natural pacing: Brian Slaten as older brother Matt; Madison Dirks as middle brother Jake; Ryan Hallahan as baby brother Drew and Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder as their father.
Gender-fluid and Loud Music On Purpose
We are actually supposed to feel a bit on edge throughout. Loud female rappers greet you as you walk in and the two gender-fluid guides offer you earplugs. Though this is supposed to put us out a bit, this 60-something writer actually found it hard not to jump up in the aisle and dance with Elliot Jenetopulos, whose onesy said on the back “2 cute 2 Be Cis” or their cohort Will Wilhelm.
There is a hard stop to the laughter, and then final troubled looks of the older brother Matt as the lights go down. While all the actors do their parts perfectly, it may strike you too how difficult playing Matt must be. At that moment you can’t help but notice how masterfully Slaten has pulled it off.
Great Grist for Fascinating Post-Show Talk Backs
Whatever you do, stay for the talk back! Let your mind be jostled by the takes of those around you. Is Matt okay or not? How would this story unfold if it were women? Or would there even be a story? Could this happen in a family of color? Is ambition white or male or just a luxury of privilege? Expect to hear someone almost beside themselves that Matt is not looking to his future. Expect to hear someone say this would never happen if they all were women. Expect to feel how bothered many are by these characters, as if they had known them since birth.
Hearing what people have to say hasn’t been this much fun since the early days of what was then called Chicago Dramatists Workshop when you sometimes wondered if the Saturday play reading would end in fisticuffs.
This is a TOP PICK for those who love theater that makes you think.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through March 19, 2017
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Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
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