We gave it a B
”The running boy is inside every man, no matter how old he gets”, is a line author Mitch Albom once penned, and Straight White Men, the new play written and directed by downtown scribe Young Jean Lee, takes that idea to the max, albeit in a tone much different than the very solemn Albom. (This new production by the Public Theater plays through December 7.)
Lee’s look at the yuletide complications of three sons reconnecting to visit their single father for the holidays begins as a raucous comedy, with the trio ribbing on, pouncing on and pile-driving each other as if they were in a schoolyard versus survivors of adulthood. Ed (Austin Pendleton), the contemplative father, is enamored with his brood, which include the youngest Drew (Pete Simpson), a somewhat enlightened teacher/writer still smarting from being called things like ”s–tbaby” by his older brothers Jake (Gary Wilmes), a smug, yet sometimes soulful banker, and the eldest, Matt (James Stanley), a former star student who has moved back home with his dad and now works as a temp.
Matt openly cries at a family dinner, which throws the family into intervention mode with very mixed results. And those mixed results begin to cloud Lee’s play as well. The vibrant, very funny first half sets up this family’s past with a healthy dose of dysfunction that never feels put on, and includes many cheeky, terrific asides (one of the best being the reveal of a Monopoly-like board game called Privilege, re-branded by the boys’ late mother). But once Lee starts to take a scalpel to Matt’s life stasis, the play begins to lose focus. You’re never quite sure if the playwright is sympathizing with or admonishing his (and others’) behavior; if the latter is true, then why sweeten the deal with family dance-offs and pajama parties?
The three leads find poignant centers to their antics, but Pendleton is less assured, particularly in the play’s more somber final third, when Ed has to practice tough love; you always get the impression his three sons would run him ragged, and Pendleton’s too-relaxed style blunts the more dramatic shifts in tone. But these knuckleheads manage to be awfully fun for a while. One just wishes the (admittedly clever) creator would have just let the boys be boys. B