Straight White Men review – modern male psychology spotlit

Southwark Playhouse, London
Young Jean Lee’s satire, unfolding at a family Christmas, finds brothers struggling with midlife

Straight white men run the world. But in Young Jean Lee’s 2014 satirical drama, directed by Steven Kunis, none of them seem to be winning.

Jake is a successful banker but a self-confessed jerk. Drew is a novelist with no current novel or girlfriend. And Matt, now in his 40s, is a once bright Harvard graduate who has lost his shine. Played by Charlie Condou as a downcast shadow of his former self, Matt has moved back into his family home with his widowed father, Ed, where they all gather for Christmas.

But before the male narrative dominates, we’re greeted by disco lights, blaring rap music performed by women and people of colour and two flamboyantly costumed trans emcee figures. Brimming with charm, the duo acknowledges that some audience members might be feeling uncomfortable. “We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account,” they jest. Performed as all-knowing puppeteers by Kim Tatum and Kamari Roméo, they feel in control of the evening, despite their limited onstage presence.

Within Suzu Sakai’s intricate middle-class living-room set, decorated with framed family photos and dartboards, the siblings revert back to puerile pranks and play fights. They recall fond memories from childhood – Matt was framed a hero for his righteous rewriting of the lyrics of Oklahoma! when his school cast a fully white version of the musical. But when the once favoured child begins to cry into his Chinese takeaway on Christmas Eve, he becomes the centre of the family’s concern.

As they battle over the cause of the oldest brother’s outburst, we begin to question what it means to be a successful straight white man today. Is it financial stability? Is it mental clarity? Or is it just believing that everything is supposed to go your way? Whatever it is, their desperate search for understanding suggests that for those with born-right privilege, just “trying to be useful” in life is an implausible, freakish desire. Though at times too gentle in its approach, Straight White Men is a timely identity study that gives a powerful critique of 21st-century white male psychology.


Anya Ryan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mikhail Durnenkov: the Russian writer capturing the everyday dread of modern life
In his dark comedy The War Has Not Yet Started, characters are bombarded by propaganda on TV and the constant threat of terror. Durnenkov speaks about the play’s universal concerns

Natalia Antonova

24, Jan, 2018 @10:30 AM

Article image
Confidence review – Tanya Burr stars in choppy seaside comedy
The YouTube star plays a girl trying to escape a failing resort in Rob Drummer’s ill-pitched revival of Judy Upton’s play

Lyn Gardner

28, May, 2018 @11:11 AM

Article image
Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties review – wickedly funny
Five New Yorkers, all named Betty, are magically transformed in this swaggering production of Jen Silverman’s play

Lyn Gardner

31, Jan, 2018 @2:30 PM

Article image
Orca review – Jaws meets The Wicker Man in unnerving drama
Matt Grinter’s play vividly captures the pressure to conform as a girl in an isolated fishing community tries to prevent a devastating mythical ritual

Michael Billington

09, Nov, 2016 @11:47 AM

Article image
Working review – Lin-Manuel Miranda retunes Terkel's paean to American labour
This musical revue – which originally flopped on Broadway – features exquisite performances and songs by Hamilton’s creator but still feels quaintly nostalgic

Lyn Gardner

09, Jun, 2017 @10:53 AM

Article image
Allegro review – Rodgers and Hammerstein's doctor dances through small-town drama
Thom Southerland directs the European premiere of this musical about an Everyman’s dilemma, but it’s too detached from the wider story of America

Michael Billington

14, Aug, 2016 @12:14 PM

Article image
Angry review – six blasts of rage and fantasy from Philip Ridley
Georgie Henley and Tyrone Huntley star in a swaggering production that seldom deepens into anything meaningful

Lyn Gardner

20, Feb, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Rubenstein Kiss review – passion and paranoia as spy drama implodes
This drama inspired by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is ripe for revival but the flawed story asks more questions than it answers

Arifa Akbar

20, Mar, 2019 @2:07 PM

Article image
The Life review – New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle
This show about 42nd Street in the 1980s is imaginatively staged with the ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke but it’s a tough sell

Michael Billington

29, Mar, 2017 @11:00 PM

Article image
Vassa Zheleznova review – Liverpool dock strike is no match for the Russian revolution
An updating of Gorky’s play loses the moral ambiguity surrounding its female protagonist and makes little sense uprooted from its historial context

Michael Billington

19, Jun, 2016 @9:33 AM