For those who do not remember the sitcom My Three Sons, which aired from 1960 to 1972, the premise featured a white widower raising three sons. The play Straight White Men, which made its West Coast debut Sunday at the Centre Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater in the Los Angeles area, also features a white widower with three adult sons, but the play exposed and examines the cracks that show in the lives in ways the privileged veneer of My Three Sons could not.
Being a ‘60s show, life in My Three Sons was largely perfect with minor lessons learned. In Straight White Men, written and directed by Korean-American Young Jean Lee and produced by her theater company, explores the racial advantages and expectations for success on these three middle-aged sons and how each has struggled with real life. Straight White Men, as the title suggests, directly provokes the audience with repeated looks the concept of white male privilege and entitlement.
The play is generally funny and thought provoking, but it is also frustrating. The three brothers regress together interacting like overgrown boys, fake fighting, teasing, making puerile jokes and showing a lack of table manners (all digging into a pie on Christmas without plates? They are in their 30s and 40s!) While the differences between them (the successful son versus the unsuccessful son) are common plot devices, Lee adds enough social commentary to keep the audience interested in hearing the next zinger.
While set at Christmas, the show is a family drama set in a Midwestern living room at the home of the liberal father (Richard Riehle). Writer-professor Drew (Frank Boyd) and middle son, divorced banker Jake (Gary Wilmes reprising the role he played in New York) come to visit their father for the holidays in their childhood home, where their eldest brother, Matt (Brian Slaten), a PhD dropout who moved back burdened by student debt and a lack of direction, lives again.
As the four reminisce, play fight and discuss their careers and therapy, Lee throws in some plot devices to raise questions in the audience’s minds:
- At one point, they pull at a Monopoly game that has been revamped by their late mom as “Privilege” to help shape her offspring. Instead of Chance and Community Chest, the racially charged cards are labeled “Denial” and “Excuses.” A “Denial” card reads: “I don’t see race. Pay $200 in reparation.” An “Excuses” card one brother draw says: “What I just said wasn’t racist/sexist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay $50 to an LGBT organization.”
- Talking about how when one son objected to the all-white cast in his school production of the musical Oklahoma, they launch into a parody of the title song with the lyrics: “We know we belong to the Klan … and the land we belong to is grand!” As one of them later quipped, they are “saving the world one ironic racist show tune at a time.”
The conversations about their careers elicit lines making fun of “people who say they care about social change when their ambitions rely on it staying the same,” and “How does being another white guy with tenure make a difference?” But, as Jake notes when talking about racial issues that arise at work, “It’s a world of pigs and if you are not a pig, you are f**ked.”
Lee has the audience waiting for an interesting denouement, but the conclusion leaving the audience wanting more dialog around the final scene. Maybe it is reminiscent of My Three Sons, that one wants the father sitting with Matt at the end, to offer more words of wisdom to guide his least successful son.
The L.A. production, which is co-presented by the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance, is the first American staging since the play had its off-Broadway premiere last year. The cast is engaging, but the men do not seem related by more than memories and Christmas flannel pajamas.
The Straight White Men updated looks at shows like My Three Sons and privileged veneer cracks will be at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through Dec. 20, 2015. There are performances Tuesday through Sunday, matinees on the weekends, but no show Thanksgiving Day.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Nov. 21
Center Theatre Group: Straight White Men
Los Angeles Times: Playwright Young Jean Lee asks, ‘What do we want straight white men to do that they’re not doing?’
NPR: In ‘Straight White Men,’ A Play Explores The Reality Of Privilege
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of the Center Theatre Group