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.
Straight White Mean is at Southwark Playhouse, London, until 4 December