Straight White Men might sound like a frat-tastic comedy in the vein of The Hangover, but it’s actually a powerful social commentary opening Monday at the Hayes Theatre on Broadway. With the help of a star-studded male ensemble making impressive Broadway debuts — including Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) and Josh Charles (The Good Wife) — the play examines toxic masculinity and white male privilege while making you disappointed that modern men still haven’t harnessed their strength in a positive movement the way women have with feminism.
The dysfunction in Straight White Men is relatable. Jake (Charles) and Drew (Hammer) are so consumed with the life trajectory of their older, Harvard-educated, brilliant-yet-unmotivated brother Matt (Paul Schneider) that they ruin Christmas with their widowed father Ed (Stephen Payne) at their childhood home in Somewhere, Midwest, U.S.A.
But for all this talk of masculinity, the production has a great deal of feminine influence. Directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) and written by Young Jean Lee, who with this production becomes the first Asian-American woman to pen a production on Broadway, the show begins with the only people in the cast who aren’t straight white men: Kate Bornstein (Person in Charge 1), the gender non-conforming icon and performer, is joined by Ty Defoe (Person in Charge 2), the Ojibwe and Oneida Grammy-winning artist and writer who identifies as two-spirit, a pan-native term used to describe the third-gender role in indigenous North American communities.
The Persons set the scene, introducing us to the dudes at Straight White Men‘s center. Bigger laughs abound when we find Jake and Drew in their family room, the setting of their family’s entire story. Jake, the quintessential younger brother and a well-known professor and author, is determined to annoy the hell out of Drew, a corporate stereotype trying to play a video game. They wind up wrestling and putting their butts on display in tight jeans — the first of a few moments where this production refreshingly objectifies male physicality in ways we’ve seen Hollywood do with the female form for decades.
It’s at first a treat for Ed to see his sons’ boisterous connection, a throwback to earlier years that seems well-paired with booze, but their blood-alcohol level draws out more and more differences in their lives, causing conflict that raises numerous questions for the audience about the expectations society places on men. Why do Jake (Charles) and Drew (Hammer) care if Matt wants to live at home with their father, who needs companionship and help in his twilight years — even if he refuses to admit it, as older men are wont to do? Who are Jake and Drew — whose love lives are trainwrecks — to judge Matt for not having a girlfriend or question his sexuality? And why do they see their big brother vacuuming a floor, getting emotional on Christmas Eve, and preparing eggnog as red flags that he’s failing at life and they must intervene? If a single woman were to forfeit a life of climbing the ladder to be at home with her widowed mother, would anyone bat an eyelash, much less raise their fists?
It’s no easy feat for Hammer, Charles, Schneider, and Payne to tackle complex characters in front of an audience in a 90-minute, intermission-less production that draws intrigue not just for its star power but also its timely themes in the #MeToo era. At times it feels like each is waiting his turn for the next line they need to nail, but overall the cast delivers magnetic and profound performances, sandwiching harsh truths between jokes and even some adorable dance moves. Hammer surprises with an emotional range beyond anything you’ve seen from him on screen — Call Me By Your Name included. Charles earnestly captures that bro you know with a thin veneer of pop wokeness covering up his ignorance and entitlement. Schneider’s sweetness and subtlety, familiar to Parks and Recreation fans, steals many a scene. And Payne makes your heart break that our elders are struggling more than any of us to make sense of our new world. Now if only their brethren will buy tickets and listen. B+