Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer
and Paul Schneider in Straight White Men at the Helen Hayes Theater, New
York. Photo: Joan Marcus
By Eugene Paul
in hell? Oh. Provocation. Getting us, the audience, off on the wrong foot with
that yowling souped up caterwauling. And that curtain? Entirely silver mylar
streamers constantly in motion as if half a dozen strippers were ready to
wriggle their way through, bumping and grinding with the so called music? So
where are the straight white men as advertised? Straight white men would be a
relief. Ahaaa….Playwright Young Jean Lee isn’t done setting us up. She sends in
Kate Bornstein & Ty Defoe
in front of the shimmery curtain come Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe . Oh, lud, is
it going to take two of them to tell us to turn off our cell phones and hearing
aids which have been rendered totally deadened? No? They’re the Persons in
Charge? Here to explain that they are not straight white men? The elucidation
is not necessary but it’s funny. In those outfits? Costume designer Suttirat
Larlarb, who has this show nailed head to toe is wittily telling us something.
So are the Persons in Charge, funny one liners about sexual identity. Oh,,
come on. Enough already. And, snap, the shimmery curtain whisks away, lighting
designer Donald Holder gives us a foreboding limbo moment, Persons in Charge
lead actors Josh Charles and Armie Hammerin in the dimness to that inevitable
front facing couch, then disappear, lights come up, and fortyish Jake (Josh
Charles) is intently pursuing a video game he sees somewhere right over our
and brother Drew (Armie Hammer) are in their childhood family room in their
father’s house -- you know, half a floor down from the rest of the house --
next to the laundry room. Very Middle America. Set designer Todd Rosenthal is
ruthless. Three stockings are hung –where else –from the mantel over the
fireplace. Does that ever say Christmas for you. And baby brother Drew is
making a goddam pest of himself trying to drive middle brother Jake crazy
lousing up his game. That’s what you do: revert to childhood when you come home
to the old house.
(Stephen Payne) and oldest brother Matt (Paul Schneider) come in from the
garage through the laundry room carrying an artificial Christmas tree. In two
sections. Lots of horsing around. Fake tree now that Mom is gone? Only the
bottom section lights up. Big challenge. Director Anna D. Shapiro, with the
absolutely vital assistance of choreographer Faye Driscoll and fight director
Thomas Schall unfolds her endless cache of bygone behaviors her marvelous,
marvelous company oozes into seamlessly, we smile and laugh and hug them to
ourselves trying to ignore the thread of desperation. It’s around now we
notice that that handsome frame around the entire stage opening has a brass
plaque at bottom saying STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. Just like a diorama in the local
history museum, all the dummies perfectly captured in costume. It becomes
vivid when Dad insists that Drew squeeze in with the rest of them on that
frumpish couch as they all eat Chinese food – the boys use chopsticks, not Dad
– and watch TV. Until Matt silently breaks down crying.
break. Persons in Charge observe their choreographed set changers set change,
get out of the way for act build up of niggling worries about Matt,
coruscatingly clever, funny not funny. We are starting to ache.
Kate Bornstein, Armie Hammer & Ty Defoe
act sets up in that familiar limbo light with Person in Charge leading
youngest son Drew to couch, positioning him prone, jaw open, asleep, lights
come up after stage crew goes about its efficient, choreographed resetting and
we’re on again. Dad has sneaked in stuffing stockings with same old same olds,
tickling us. Drew awake is seriously distressed about big brother Matt. He’s
the oldest, the smartest, never had a career like Drew and Jake. What’s wrong
with him? Matt does all these helping temp type jobs, came back to live with
Dad after Mom died, cooks, cleans, what is the matter with him? Jake got
married to a black girl had two kids, got divorced, is a hard nosed banker.
Drew went into therapy, got turned around, is writing, teaching, chasing women,
but Matt? All those brains? What’s wrong with him? Matt, who has been just as
crazy a kid as his brothers this holiday, except for that cleaning up, taking
care of stuff thing he does, doesn’t know. He likes to help, that’s all.
we all experience a shudder of recognition, those of us who have assumed the
expected roles, those of us who have not. Playwright Lee has, indeed, been
relentless. Identity? Male roles? Female roles? Any roles at all? Persons in
Charge? Who are we? Who we want to be? Who we assume to be? Who everyone
wants us to be? One by one, Drew, and Jake, and finally, even Dad, reject Matt,
leaving him alone, in the limbo light, until, with a snap of the fingers, a
Person in Charge brings down the shivery , shimmery silvery curtain.
It’s a wonderful play. Certainly on a par with Three Tall Women, and A
Doll’s House 2 of recent reclame, especially with this brilliant
production. Playwright Young Jean Lee has a lot to say and brilliantly knows
how to say it.. Get ready to brace for what’s next.
White Men. At
the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Tickets: $69-$149.
212-239-6200. 90 min. Thru Sept.9.