The Trouble with Normal

Young Jean Lee, Straight White Men, 2014. Rehearsal view, The Public Theater, New York, NY, November 6, 2014. Matt and Ed (James Stanley and Austin Pendleton). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING. The same week that former President George W. Bush published 41: A Portrait of My Father, his “love story” for pater and predecessor George H. W. Bush, the Farrelly Brothers’ (d)ur-comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To was number one at the box office. Also that week, “The Innovations Issue” of the New York Times Magazine championed failure as the new success: “Welcome to the Failure Age!” “Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success,” “A Brief History of Failure.” A prodigal son who sinned and was born again—first into Christ, then into art—writing the record for dear old dad. An extreme “masculinfancy” comedy, a popular genre populated by the manboy, the doofus, and, more recently, the douchebag genius. A national newspaper’s spin on losing as the way of the winner. At the center of all of these stories—produced of course with an eye to sell as many copies, seats, and papers as possible—are America’s current favorite characters-of-no-character: white men.

Also consider a part of this moment Young Jean Lee’s newest play Straight White Men, which opened at The Public Theater earlier this week. The title clearly frames Lee’s production as an attempt to wrestle her subjects both as characters in her play, as well as players in a cultural super narrative on the world’s stage. Of course, we’ve been told for quite some time that straight white men aren’t what they used to be. Writers and critics as varied as Avital Ronell, A.O. Scott, Hanna Rosin, Cintra Wilson, and Andrew O’Hehir have each pondered the dull strain of American “middle-bro” culture, with its dutifully crafted tales of feckless men—“inaction heroes,” to borrow a phrase from Ronell—stumbling rather than journeying through life. If the erosion of traditional masculinity has been attributed at various points to the rise of feminism, the demise of authority, or to the fallout of late capitalism, Lee chooses another angle—white liberalism— from which to explore why these men just don’t know their place anymore.

In Lee’s surefooted and affecting story, a father and his three grown sons gather to celebrate Christmas at the old homestead. Each man, we learn, is untethered in his own way. Father Ed (Austin Pendleton) is a retired widower whose days are filled with little more than learning guitar and being waited on by his eldest son, Matt (James Stanley). Second-born Jake (Gary Wilmes) is the alpha of the pack, a divorced banker and father of two whose unapologetic swagger keeps the room roiling. The youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), holds a fulltime position at a university, writes well-received political novels, but can’t seem to hold down a steady girlfriend. The boys were raised in a liberal household, where Mom did things like recraft Monopoly into a game called Privilege, “where you have fun by not having fun,” Drew remembers. “How else were you gonna learn not to be assholes?” their father explains.

Grief and loneliness aside, what’s eating these men is Matt’s move back home. Once a prodigy who spent his youth protesting injustice, even founding a “School for Young Revolutionaries,” Matt now spends his days at a temp job, his nights and weekends cooking, cleaning, and running errands for his able-bodied father. In other words, Matt is spending his life doing things a brilliant straight white man shouldn’t, and his father and brothers want to know why. Each has a theory. Jake argues that Matt’s political beliefs have necessitated the choice of standing down, of becoming invisible. “Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead,” Jake booms, “but a white guy’s pretty hard-pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed.” Drew believes instead that Matt’s current state is indicative of a deep need for therapy, which will help him become happy. (After all, it worked for Drew). Ed, the most perplexed and disappointed by Matt’s underachieving, thinks perhaps his son’s paralysis has been brought on by the financial strain of his student loans, or perhaps for reasons that hit even closer to home. “I look at you now and don’t even recognize you,” he mourns, “I feel like I haven’t done a good job as a father.”

If the story feels conventional, it is. Pointedly. What is meant to be the oddest aspect of Lee’s play is that it’s written in the realist tradition, as though to tackle straight white men on their own playing field. (Lee’s previous work has heretofore been outwardly experimental.) It’s a striking idea, the subtle cracking open of a genre by a close adherence to it, and in certain moments, Straight White Men’s normalcy is what ironically gives it its edge. It’s as though all the tropes have been given the space to play themselves out. That said, it’s a slippery idea too, and although thankfully the play never slides into parody (a most infantilizing genre, mimetic, ever dependent upon the existence of the thing it’s supposedly sending up), it does lose certain potential sharpness, negotiating the clichés it sets before us while never quite firming up a tack or tone of its very own. (And here I will seem to unfairly pick on Lee—and it is unfairly—in an attempt to articulate my exhaustion with a narrative strategy that has become au courant in contemporary storytelling.)

Matt—around whom the large questions spin—remains enigmatic, a blank screen onto which the rest of the family projects their theories, and so too can the audience. (One might be reminded of Melville’s Bartleby and his haunting refrain I would prefer not to, but the character isn’t given even that much gusto or direction.) His blankness is useful up to a point, but his lack of shape allows Lee to unhook herself from articulating a position, or of expanding the conversation beyond the tropes we’re being asked to consider. “Let the audience decide” is a mirroring tactic I’ve become weary of, as it relies on loose ends to produce meaning rather than risk saying something. In this case, it’s the meta-ness of Lee’s play that gives it its aura of profundity—watching straight white men in a play titled Straight White Men in a genre that was largely the territory of straight white men. Perhaps that’s enough for some, though in this moment when the Bushes are back, the masculinfants rule our screens, and thumbs are way up for a generalized dumbing down, I was hoping for fresher insight.

Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men runs through December 14th at The Public’s Martinson Theater.