Young Jean Lee’s latest work in progress, Straight White Men, opened last weekend to a packed Leeds Theatre at Brown. Although the title suggests that the script would focus on such concepts as patriarchy or cis privilege, the play takes an introspective look at what success is in contemporary American society.
The play’s cast consists of only four characters, an aging father and his three middle-aged sons. Played by Zachary Segel ’13, the father, Ed, is a recently widowed retiree, who is enjoying the exploits of a successful career. Ed’s youngest son, Drew, played by Michael Chiboucas ’13.5, is a college professor, and his middle son, Jake, is a lawyer played by Gerrit Thurston ’13. The oldest son, Matt, however, is a graduate and law school dropout who is currently living with his father. William Peterson ’14 plays Matt.
The conflict of the story begins when Matt begins to break down in tears for no ostensible reason. It soon becomes clear though that Matt is struggling to find a meaning for his life, and he fears his search for some type of successful life is in vain.
Drew pleads with Matt to go to therapy, saying that a psychiatrist can help him over this feeling of hopelessness. Drew seems to suggest that it isn’t the lack of meaning in Matt’s life that is the cause of his suffering, but it is the desire for any meaning at all that is the root of his ills.
Ed dismisses Drew’s calls for therapy, instead saying that Matt needs to pull himself up from his bootstraps and make a living for himself. Matt contends that that is no longer an option. For Matt, the old idea ” title=”Straight White Men (Property of Brown University)” class=”alignleft” width=”275″ height=”425″ />of the American dream no longer applies, and to some degree he is right. What is the American dream after you have already been born into it? For Matt, and many like him, the desire to make financial success the goal one’s life is no longer appealing. They have no needs that have yet to be met, no struggles to overcome. Even if they tried, they are unlikely to even be able to match the success of their parents, despite their inherent advantage.
Jake offers perhaps the most critical insight into Matt’s problem. Jake tells Matt that he is a revolutionary at heart, but he has nothing to fight for. He is excluded from the contemporary causes of minorities, because he is told, “that they are not his fights to fight,” but at the same time, he feels useless just sitting around. Some might see Jake’s response as a critique of modern day liberalism’s alienation of straight, middle class, white men, but it actually runs deeper.
The goal of liberalism is entirely terrestrial, the betterment of mankind being the ultimate end to its goal. But what if that goal is achieved? What if there was racial harmony, social equality, a complete blurring of class lines? What would people have to live for? It seems that Straight White Men is asking that very question, by using straight white men as a group that has seemingly accomplished this feat. They have fought and won their battle for freedom of speech, religion, sovereignty, and more. So without the need to fight for anything anymore, what do straight white men have to live for, or more generally, what does the end goal, the telos, of liberalism offer? More directly, can mankind live solely for mankind?
Perhaps intentionally, or maybe through divine serendipity, the ostensible meaningless of the family’s lives is juxtaposed with their rejection of a higher being or any sort of higher calling. The sons make their obligatory Christmas toast to “the Lord”, to which the father responds with, “to Mabel [the name of the Christmas tree].”
Segel, Thurston, Peterson, and Chiboucas deserve a considerable amount of praise for their performances, and Lee demonstrates considerable skill in connecting the audience to the characters. She also manages to create a genuine brotherly bond between the characters, deftly moving between serious matter and brotherly shenanigans. The performance was thoroughly enjoyable, and the humor was so well done that audience at times sounded like the laugh track from the Big Bang Theory. More impressive was the fact that Lee manages to avoid being didactic and instead does what all good artists should do: expand the audience’s mind, leaving them contemplating deeper truth.