July 11, 2016

Straight to some uncomfortable truths

Straight White Men
by Young Jean Lee
State Theatre Company of South Australia
and La Boite Theatre Company
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
July 8. Tickets: $ 28 – $72.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until July 23.
Duration: 90 minutes.
La Boite Theatre season: The Roundhouse, Brisbane,
July 27- August 13.

Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee’s break-out hit, Straight White Men, has been discombobulating audiences since its debut at the New York Public Theatre in 2014, where it reportedly sent subscribers into a flurry of disapproval. Now, first with the Melbourne Theatre Company version in April, and then this new production from State Theatre Company and Brisbane’s La Boite, Australian audiences are also being invited to look at themselves, refracted through Lee’s astutely satiric smoke and mirrors.

In her lively staging, director Nescha Jelk keeps close to Lee’s playbook of shock tactics. Booming from the speakers, before the performance has even begun, is an amped-up playlist of sexually explicit female rappers, assembled by DJ and musical composer, Busty Beatz. The point is simple enough: to displace any notion of audience familiarity and passenger comfort.

The other framing device is the Stage Hand in Charge, in this case Birra Gubba woman, Alexis West cheerily breaking through the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, reminding to switch off mobile phones, re-setting the stage props, and providing ubiquitous gender and ethnic contrast to the white male characters.

Inside these layers is the three-part dramatic comedy about three brothers and their widowed father, all straight white men – nostalgically celebrating Christmas. It has a deliberate sit-com format (echoes of My Three Sons from the Sixties, Frazier and many others) and Victoria Lamb’s set, in fifty shades of beige, fawn, mushroom and taupe, is, as Lee prescribes, “hyper-naturalistic”.

The strategy in Straight White Men is not to present the characters as obnoxious supremacists – in fact the sons grew up mindful of their good fortune. Their mother even re-labelled their Monopoly game, “Privilege” – and changed the rules to reward the underdog and the socially altruistic.

Instead the play examines notions of success and well-being – for Jake the affluent business owner; Drew, the academic and published writer, for their father Don, a successful engineer – and highlights the crisis for Matt, the eldest son, the most promising and well-educated of all, who is without ambition and purpose. In splendid irony Lee suggests that to forgo the destiny of the straight white male is to have no identity left.

For this funny, thoughtful, engaging production Jelk has gathered an excellent cast. Chris Pitman’s Jake is all buoyant confidence; Lucas Stibbard plays Drew, the self-regarding kid brother, and Roger Newcombe, the benign father, oblivious to his assumptions about his own family. But it is Hugh Parker, outstanding as Matt, who brings us to the uncomfortable realisation that admitting what we don’t know is the hardest thing of all.

Murray Bramwell

“Straight to some uncomfortable truths”, The Australian, July 11, 2016, p.14.

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