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Straight White Men review at Helen Hayes Theater – ‘sharply observed’

Stephen Payne, Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider in Straight White Men at the Helen Hayes Theater, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

With her perceptive study of Straight White Men, Young Jean Lee becomes the first Asian-American female playwright on Broadway.

Supported by director Anna D Shapiro’s taut production, they take a funny, poignant, provocative look at family, gender roles, and “progressive” tolerance.

Lee destabilises the traditional naturalistic living room play with Brechtian elements.

Two ‘Persons in Charge’ (non-binary performers Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe) introduce themselves and the play, beseeching the audience to ruminate on their privilege and discomfort while watching. They oversee set changes, place actors, and when they’re in control, bold purple, pink, and blue lighting blazes.

When they’re not there vibrancy is lost. We’re left with the naturally-lit beige living room of straight white men celebrating Christmas. Drew (Armie Hammer) and Jake (Josh Charles) are visiting their widower father (Stephen Payne) and brother Matt (Paul Schneider). When Matt bursts into tears, the men panic. Desperate to “solve” Matt’s “problem,” they project their insecurities onto him but never listen to him.

Lee probes masculinity, power, and the gendered value of labour. She deftly captures the family’s rhythms as they oscillate from teasing to concern to argument, breaking the tension with humour and physicality — including a delicious dance break of every goofy white-guy-on-the-dance-floor move (perfectly choreographed by Faye Driscoll).

Charles puffs out his chest and peacocks, but he has a thin-skinned fragility underneath. Hammer’s positive facade as Drew slips, his voice getting higher, trepidation in his eyes. Schneider’s bursts of playfulness allow for glimpses of Matt’s impish past now dormant behind his lumpish quietude.

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A superb cast excavates the emotional struggles of straight white men in a sharply observed and humorous play