Straight White Men


At the Steppenwolf Upstairs


By Dan Zeff


ChicagoThe title of the new play at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre is “Straight White Men,” suggesting the audience is in for a satirical exploration of racial politics. But the show opens with a prologue by two young actors that implies we are about to enter matters of gender and sexual identity. Finally, the narrative coalesces into a family drama about defining the good life in American society.   

        I left the theater irritated at playwright Young Jean Lee’s apparent inability to settle on a single relevant theme. The production is very well acted and Lee’s dialogue often crackles, but the lack of narrative focus, even in the short work (90 minutes divided into three scenes with no intermission) was annoying. Still, the play stuck in my mind like a burr and I think Lee has come up with an incisive and disturbing, if imperfect, work. The viewer just needs to cut the author some slack as she meanders toward the show’s stirring, if ambiguous, finish.

        “Straight White Men” is set in the living room of a middle class home somewhere in the Midwest. The time frame is Christmas Eve (scene one), Christmas Day (scene two), and the day after Christmas (scene three). The home belongs to Ed, a middle aged widower who is hosting his three adult sons for a holiday celebration. Drew, the youngest, is a writer who had an unhappy life until he underwent successful therapy. Jake, the middle son, is a divorced banker. Matt, the eldest, is the brightest of the trio, a Harvard graduate who can’t seem to find his niche in life and lives at home with his father while earning a pittance of income as an office temp.

                                                            Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

     Most of the first two scenes are spent in macho locker room style horseplay among the brothers, with lots of verbal raillery and physical rough and tumble as father Ed benevolently looks on. For all their trading in insults the brothers seem to genuinely like each other. But the character of Matt darkens the action in the final scene. The problem is that Drew and Jack and ultimately Ed want Matt to break out of his lethargy. Matt insists he is fine but his brothers and father demand that he harness his intelligence and quality education to make something of his life. Ed, Drew, and Jake claim that he is letting himself down, with the implication that he is letting them down. Matt plaintively resists and one by one his family abandons him.

        The above description may be giving away too much of the plot, But “Straight White Men” is not a who dunnit. It raises questions that superficially have obvious answers. Should we all strive for personal happiness (of course)? Do we have an obligation to ourselves, our family, and our society to use our gifts, even if those gifts emerge from unearned racial and cultural advantages (why not)? Maybe those advantages imply we have a greater obligation to strive for fulfillment. But Matt selects an existence that resembles the life of the millennial so familiar in contemporary American humor.

If Matt is satisfied with an absence of happiness, a dead end personal and working life, and no future prospects, isn’t that his business? He harms no one and just wants to be left to his own minimal devices. But his brothers and father turn so hostile to Matt’s enervated attitude that they angrily walk away from him, perhaps out of a sense of betrayal as much as frustration that Matt won’t pull himself up by his emotional bootstraps. Matt’s self willed lifestyle seems a denial of the American dream, which values ambition, monetary success, marriage and children, and an honored place in society. As low keyed and harmless as Matt appears, he may be a disconcerting cultural subversive.

                                  Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The playwright offers no easy answers, leaving us with the image of Matt, alone on the stage, staring bleakly out at the audience as the lights fade to black. The audience at the press opening responded with only modest applause, departing quietly from the theater, moved or perplexed or unsettled.

Whether the viewers found the play stimulating or unsatisfactory, or something in between, they could revel in the fine performances guided by the playwright. As director, Lee presumably got just the results she sought from her ensemble. Brian Slaten (Matt), Madison Dirks (Jake), Ryan Hallahan (Drew), and Alan Wilder (Ed) work together perfectly as a small ensemble, each actor vividly etching out a distinctive character, from the paternal Ed to the boisterous Jake, the intense Drew, and the low keyed and ultimately enigmatic Matt. The physical comic moments are first rate, led by an impromptu recreation of the musical number Matt had composed in college that reworked the title song from “Oklahoma” into a satirical jape at the Ku Klux Klan. And when the play’s tone ratchets up to the tension filled confrontations between Matt and his family, the actors carry the audience with them to the grim conclusion.

One misstep by the playwright is the inclusion of the two actors (Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm) as transgender personalities. The characters are distracting and misleading and point the audience to a line of narrative that is never developed.

The physical production is excellent, thanks to David Evans Morris’s scenic design, Enver Chakartash’s costumes, Sarah Hughey’s lighting, and Jamie McElhinney’s sound design. The play could work just as well in a more intimate space with minimal visual effects but Steppenwolf has given the play the full main stage treatment in its upstairs theater.

The success of “Straight White Men” may reside in the eye and ear of the viewer. Some patrons may willingly follow the storyline through its twists and dead ends while others will be irritated and possibly puzzled by just what the playwright wants to prove. But defects and all, the play is still a show that should set the attentive viewer’s mind churning.

              The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

     “Straight White Men” runs through March 19 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $89. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

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