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'Straight White Men' review: An up-close look at white privilege and identity

Stephen Payne, left, plays dad to sons Josh

Stephen Payne, left, plays dad to sons Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in "Straight White Men." Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Straight White Men"

WHERE  Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St.

INFO From $22,, 212-239-6200

BOTTOM LINE Engaging, provocative examination of identity and privilege.

  The earsplitting, sexually explicit rap music blasting as the audience enters the Hayes Theater is disorienting — intentionally so, it turns out.

   In the engaging, provocative "Straight White Men,"  now at Second Stage's new Broadway home, playwright Young Jean Lee makes a statement about identity and privilege by taking a microscope to a group — a large group — that rarely gets that treatment. And that music has a clear purpose, explain two actors identified as the people in charge (the "non-binary" Kate Bornstein and “transcending gender" Ty Defoe, neither a straight white man) as they interact with the audience preshow, offering earplugs to anyone wanting to diminish the decibel level. As Defoe explains in a speech before the play starts, "it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn't take your needs into account."

    Indeed. In a Playbill article, Lee, the first Asian-American woman to be produced on Broadway, talks about seeking out the uncomfortable — for herself and the audience. This one, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, opens on a cluttered Midwest family room (set by Todd Rosenthal), surrounded by a frame with a plaque dead center inscribed "Straight White Men." It's as if we're watching a living diorama in some near-future museum.

     Three brothers (fine-tuned performances from Armie Hammer in his Broadway debut, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider) and their widowed dad (the occasionally befuddled Stephen Payne, the understudy who took over when both Tom Skerritt and Denis Arndt left the production) have gathered on Christmas Eve. Lee perfectly captures the boys-will-be-boys mentality of the three siblings as they engage in the taunting, roughhouse behavior of their youth. Most telling, they play Privilege, a game their mother invented from a Monopoly set meant to point out their entitlements. (One denial card reads: "Get stopped by the police for no reason and go directly to jail.”) 

    This is no dysfunctional family drama; these men all care about each other. Deeply. So when Matt, the most promising of the lot but now living at home and working as a temp, breaks down over dinner (Chinese food out of the box), there is major concern. Is he plagued by college debt? Depressed? Trying to make way for the disenfranchised? What to do about Matt drives what little action there is in the play.

   But the resolution, surprising as it may be, is unimportant.  "As foreign as they are to us," Defoe gives us the crux in the opening speech, "we’re gonna try to find some understanding for straight white men. That’s what we wish everyone would do for us."  

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