Dallas — Audiences have come to expect the unexpected from Manhattan-based experimental playwright Young Jean Lee—but a “wet Willie” in a brother’s ear? Clearly, this downtown lady’s been talking to some Straight White Men and yes, Second Thought Theatre’s canny and probing production of Lee’s most realistic-looking play to date doesn’t spare our dainty sensibilities. Brace yourselves for sweaty towels, serious scratching, and apple pie eaten straight from the pan in the black box theater at Bryant Hall, on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus.
It’s all pretty funny, as your dad used to say—until somebody gets hurt.
Widowed father Ed (Bradley Campbell) welcomes two of his grown boys home for Christmas: middle son Jake (Brandon Potter), a macho banker with shaved head and six-pack, and youngest son Drew (Drew Wall), a popular college professor and novelist. Oldest son Matt (Thomas Ward), a former teacher, is already in the house; he moved in with Dad some months ago for reasons he seems disinclined to share. The clever twist in this white-bread lineup is that these aren’t really your typical SWMs at all. Ed and his late wife (using as one of their tools a homemade alt-Monopoly game they called “Privilege”) raised their sons to reject “white male privilege” and look suspiciously on its perks and toys—with amusingly mixed results.
The script, directed with a smart sense of its testosterone-fueled energy by Christie Vela, brims with sudden-onset comedy bits—Dad delights the boys with new plaid Christmas pajamas, they slurp eggnog and perform ghastly parodies of the parents’ favorite musicals (“The Klan we belong to is grand,” they warble for O-K-K-K-lahoma!). They wrestle, crowd each other on the couch, revive gross-out nicknames—and yet.
What’s going on here, we wonder? Why would the adventurous, Korean-born, West Coast-raised Lee (known locally for Undermain’s productions of her plays The Appeal and The Shipment) choose to paint herself into this sitcom-ish suburban corner? (Jeffrey Schmidt’s paneled den will give you flashbacks to holidays of yore.) Maybe because, as she’s said more than once, she likes writing plays that make even her “uncomfortable”—and the stereotypes of straight white men fall into that category.
Yet there are clues Lee is writing something more than straight-play naturalism. SWM is preceded by a high-decibel barrage of rap with (as the playwright specifies) “nasty lyrics” sung by women. When it stops, two “Persons in Charge” (Christine Sanders and Zo Pryor) mock-sympathize with us about a theatrical environment “that doesn’t take your preferences into consideration.” Welcome to their world—we get it. (Sanders is black and female; Pryor presents as gender-nonconforming, wearing a T-shirt that reads "I literally don't have time for your cissues.")
Their hovering presence keeps the notion of theatrical un-reality in our minds. The PICs frog-march actors into place, leaving them mannequin-stiff until a gesture sets them in motion. They supervise wardrobe changes—and most curiously, give a curt “yes” or “no” to characters/actors who want to exit the stage. Embedded in the SWM cast, they are an intriguingly discomfiting element. Playwright Lee says she wants her work to “get under our skin”—and we sense that philosophy at work in the competing realities of the play itself and the action around its edges.
The actors playing father and sons, though, make sure we see a family on the stage, not a theatrical construct. They feel connected, like people who’ve known each other forever. And there’s a kinetic and emotional energy to their interactions –even as they sometimes go over the top in Lee’s rowdy script—that rings true.
Campbell’s laid-back Dad/Ed seems at first glance to be an uncomplicated guy: he murders a Christmas carol on guitar, looks after the neighbors, and is glad (we think) to let Matt take care of him. Potter’s Jake is a live-wire contrarian (a self-described jerk despite—or because of?—his upbringing), and proud to reinforce “the white guy system” every day of his supercharged business life.
Wall’s Drew seems content, after years of therapy, to be a well-known Sensitive Guy—but in Dad’s den he slips back easily into the put-upon baby brother role. And Ward’s gentle, soft-spoken Matt—who isn’t, they like to remind him, doing a thing with his Harvard degree—is a code we haven’t yet cracked. He gets into the Christmas frolicking here and there, but seems utterly exhausted by his brothers.
So when Matt bursts into tears in the middle of Christmas Eve dinner it gets everyone’s attention. We’re just as surprised as the family—and surprised again at how quickly the conversation turns to the rules and arguments of the old family game. For Matt’s relationship to “Privilege,” Jake and Drew agree, must be at the heart of his problems.
Drew and Jake each think they have it figured out, but Matt says “I just want to be useful," and to “not make things worse.”
For Matt and his brothers and father—and the audience—deciphering what that means is in lock-step with a message that Lee is perhaps searching for herself. (She has reworked it several times, including after the election of Donald Trump, for a production she directed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre; Second Thought is using the latest version.)
What’s going to happen? At the end of this oddly comic play, there is a whiff of real sadness, a sudden realization that the rules of white male privilege might let you do just about anything you want in life.
Except be a loser.