This is a retroactive review.
This is a retroactive review because I wasn’t planning to write a review—my original plan was to spend a nice evening at the theater and celebrate that I was out past 9 p.m. on a school night. But then I saw a play that instilled a hatred in me I haven’t felt since I first started watching “The Bachelor”—a hatred that would not be satiated until I spent 1,000 words ranting about it, and since I’m not on Twitter, a play review for Rebellious was my next-best option.
I didn’t know anything about the Steppenwolf production, “Straight White Men” before I saw it. What could it be about? I wondered back in a more innocent time—would the show be about straight white men, just as “Cats” is jam-packed with funky felines with 80’s hair, or would the show be the complete antithesis of its title, just as “Rent” features a bunch of godless hippies who refuse to pay for housing? Rest assured, “Straight White Men” is about straight white men. But these are not your typical straight white men—those fools who would wear brown shoes with a black suit—these are progressive straight white men. They are #woke. This show is what it would be like if Logan Square was a performance piece.
The show opens with two gender-fluid performers guiding the actors on stage, directing their movements like the Ghost of Christmas Past and Ghost of Christmas Present in unfortunate-looking jumpsuits. The family drama involves Jamie, Drew, and Matt—three brothers who came home to visit their father Ed over the Christmas holiday. While Jamie and Drew have excelled in their chosen fields—as a banker and an academic, respectively, Matt has not followed in their esteemed footsteps. Instead, he lives at home with his widowed father and works as a temp, prompting his loved ones to spend the next hour discussing his emotional and mental state. This is honestly the entire show—90 minutes of my life that I will never get back spent watching a family discuss why one member works in an office. The characters in this show are so g-damned socially conscious that it gets exhausting—each man is the personification of organic, free-range, conflict-free oatmeal. Does oatmeal even need to be conflict-free? you might wonder. I don’t know, but if you asked one of the characters in this show that same question, they would have an answer, and it would last 20 minutes longer than you wanted it to.
Over the course of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and that meaningless stretch of time between Christmas and New Year’s, these brothers and their father attempt to break down why Matt, with his education and background and intelligence, is working as a temp. Is this some kind of statement about his heteronormative, cisgendered, white privilege? Is this because he is crippled by depression? Is this because he just really loves making copies? They discuss privilege throughout this show more than Tumblr users. There are so, so many discussions about the advantages of these straight white men—their advantages over women, their advantages over the LGBTQ community, their advantages over minorities, their advantages over LGBTQ, minority women—yet what was so frustrating about sitting through this Buzzfeed thinkpiece of a play was that the constant debate never brought up the one area of privilege that actually seemed fitting.
They were rich. They were all freaking rich.
It explained why happiness was a concept discussed ad nauseam throughout this play—rich people like to sit around and wonder if they’re happy, in between the donating to charity and playing lacrosse—everyone else has actual jobs to do. Debating happiness is a luxury for those with disposable income and free time. Admittedly, it was hard to tell that Ed, the patriarch, was a wealthy man—as the interior of his home was as beige and uninteresting as a straight white man’s asshole. The set design included tacky leather couches and carpeting as far as the eye could see (although I could understand the need for carpeting. Straight white men love carpet.) Yet despite the deeply uninspired set design, the real privilege that these characters enjoyed became abundantly clear once Ed offered to pay Matt’s student loans for 10 years of postdoctoral study at Stanford and an undergrad career at Harvard without hesitating. If the play had actually addressed the economic background they all clearly benefited from, rather than obsessing about how a straight white man could dare to be happy in this day and age, it might have been a worthwhile show!
“Straight White Men” was written and directed by Young Jean Lee, a Korean-American playwright, who is quoted on the Steppenwolf website as saying that “Straight White Men isn’t “about” privilege.” To expand on her quote, this play doesn’t seem to be “about” anything at all—even the title is meant to sound more provocative than it actually is—featuring gender-fluid performers who do absolutely nothing but position the main characters like tortured Ken dolls, discussing race when there is no one on that stage who isn’t white, referencing gender disparity in a cast full of men—it’s all talk. “Straight White Men” is not a story, it is some horrible thought experiment for entitled, self-aggrandizing academics with mediocre hair—like an episode of Frasier that will not end.
On the train home, my friends wondered if maybe this was a massive meta experiment to address a new kind of man for our generation—one who is #woke and #conscious and #blessed but still #alwayshumble. If so, if this entire play was a meta critique of #woke white men—then congratulations. I am confused and sleepy and irritated, as I often am when experiencing works of art too grandiose for my simple human brain to comprehend. This show is truly transcendent—it is the story of a group of men, standing on stage, describing the new white man’s burden. And we stand and applaud them for it. How groundbreaking! How magnificent! How original.
“Straight White Men” runs at Steppenwolf Theatre until March 26.
(Photo credit: Ensemble member Alan Wilder (Ed), Madison Dirks (Jake), Ryan Hallahan (Drew) and Brian Slaten (Matt). Photo by Michael Brosilow.)