StageWest’s ‘Straight White Men’ pokes at liberal guilt

Des Moines Register Theatre Review

Michael Morain, mmorain@dmreg.com2:30 p.m. CST December 14, 2015

When three brothers start screaming at each other about white privilege at the end of StageWest’s new play at the Des Moines Social Club, their dear old dad shakes his head in exasperation.

“You keep saying this,” he tells one of them, “and I find it very hard to believe.”

And so might the audience. For even if they accept the provocative main idea of “Straight White Men” — that after years on top, said men are now struggling to find their place in modern society — it’s hard to believe that these particular four specimens are real, much less related.

Instead, it’s pretty clear that the Korean-American playwright, Young Jean Lee, first decided to write a play about identity politics and then came up with the guys to inhabit it. In interviews, she has explained that she developed the characters after talking with groups of minorities — women, gays, non-whites — who told her what they’d like straight white men to say and do.

So the show feels more like An Essay About Something Important than an actual play, despite the commendable efforts of director Todd Buchacker and his four-man cast. They try their best, but the material can stretch only so far.

The story takes place over three days at Christmas, when all three middle-aged brothers gather at the middle-class Midwestern home of their widowed father, a retired engineer named Ed (Gary Roberts). The youngest is Drew (Eric Olsen, in his company debut), a successful novelist and literature professor. The middle boy is Jake (Gabe Thompson), a newly divorced banker.

And then there’s poor Matt (Shawn Wilson), who recently moved back in with Dad because his temp job for a local nonprofit doesn’t pay enough to keep him ahead of his student loans. It’s a sorry situation made worse by the arrival of his successful brothers, who call him a “vortex of negativity” for moping around the house like Eeyore.

Wilson is an excellent actor, and he carries Matt’s depression on slumped shoulders. His generally murky demeanor makes his few animated moments (and breakdancing) stand out all the more.

Olsen has fun as a sensitive New Ager, talking up the benefits of therapy. And Thompson seems comfortable in his own skin, although for contrast he could probably sharpen the sharky qualities often associated with bankers.

Together, the brothers spend a lot of time recounting “remember when” stories from their rebellious younger years, when one of them dug a grave in the backyard, when another founded a club for young revolutionaries, and so on. Matt, always the high-minded activist, once staged a protest of a grade school’s all-white production of “Oklahoma!” by coaxing his friends to show up and sing the title number in hooded gowns made from white bedsheets.

“Ooooooklahoma! O-K-K-K!” the brothers sing in giddy recollection.

These memories are funny, but after awhile you wonder if the brothers are telling them more for the sake of the audience than each other. The stories feel a bit forced by a playwright better known for creating performance art than naturalistic scripts. Her previous work includes a play called “The Untitled Feminist Show” and “The Shipment,” a send-up of African-American cliches she saw over and over in movies and on TV.

Here at the Social Club, where the show runs through Sunday, one of the more heavy-handed bits involves an old board game the brothers rediscover in the cupboard. It’s a homemade version of Monopoly called “Privilege,” complete with rewritten cards for “excuses” and “denials.”

One brother draws an excuse card and reads it aloud: “What I just said wasn’t racist/sexist/homophobic because I was joking. Pay $50 to an LGBT organization.” The brothers’  mother made them play the game at a birthday party because “how else were you going to learn not to be a–holes?” their dad explains.

Later, when Drew asks Matt to read him a story — you know, like grown brothers do — Matt goes over to the bookshelf and reads a little Nietzsche.

After a number of weird moments like this, plus a lot of testosterone-fueled roughhousing on and around the couch (in a realistic family room designed by Tim Wisgerhof), the show sets aside its brotherly shenanigans and finally gets to the sad, serious points about liberal guilt that Lee apparently wanted to make all along. It’s a provocative topic, but it’s also a downer, and the show’s last 15 minutes are deadly.

It’s too bad the brothers’ mother isn’t still alive to help explain exactly how they inherited all their noble concerns. Because they sure didn’t come from their endearingly dorky dad, who seems cheerfully content to carry on the family’s Christmas traditions even though the boys are now grown.

When he gives them matching footie pajamas this year, like always, the brothers put them on for his sake. Then they squeeze onto the couch, like always. And nobody asks, “Why are we doing this?”

You’d think nobody asked the playwright, either — but someone did.

“I think the play ends up being a fundamentally unsatisfying experience, which is great,” Lee told American Theatre magazine. “The last thing I wanted to do was make a show about these issues that left both the audience and me feeling satisfied.”

Well, then: mission accomplished.

If you go

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Des Moines Social Club, 900 Cherry St.

Tickets: $25-$30.

Info:www.stagewestiowa.com