I told Alex at the coffee shop jokingly that I was going to see a play called “Straight White Men” because I wanted to see something about people just like me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As the audience walks into the upstairs theater at the Steppenwolf, a hiphop tune blares and two transgender actors in bedazzled jumpsuits shake their hips to the booming bass when not showing people to their seats or handing out earplugs. When the show begins, the same pair go up on stage and explain that the music was meant to make us uncomfortable the same way that people like them—neither he nor she but they—often feel in the larger culture. Then they reassure us that the rest of the evening will only concern normal men who identify as men so we can all rest easy. I was hoping they’d turn the music back on after they were done talking, but no such luck.
The set is a typical American living room. Our host/ushers escort two white men onto the stage and place them on and behind the centrally-located couch. The one sitting down starts to manically jab at a video-game controller, aiming his efforts out at us, the fourth wall, while the other one harasses and distracts him, trying to get him to stop playing and pay attention to him rather than to the game. They are meant to be grown brothers lapsing into childishness on a Christmas visit to their childhood home. The father and third son arrive and more horseplay ensues. Just so us rubes in the seats don’t miss the message, the sons play a customized version of Monopoly renamed Privilege. I get up and leave after twenty-five minutes.
Walking down Halsted in the pelting rain toward the shelter of the Apple Store’s overhanging roof to wait for the bus home, I wonder what pissed me off so much about the play. The characters seemed based on sitcom archetypes rather than living people. Judging by the hearty laughter of the rest of the audience at their antics, this was not a problem for anyone but me. The abrasive intro set up an expectation of something that might challenge but what I sat through was a tired pastiche reenactment of scenes from TV shows. I wondered whether the playwright had met any actual people in her life, let alone the titular straight white men.
In an interview I found online the playwright talks about challenging herself to write about what she dislikes and makes her uncomfortable. She wants to write the play she herself least wants to see. Well, she certainly succeeded in writing a p[ay that one straight white guy couldn’t sit through. I wasn’t shocked or offended during my twenty-five minutes at the Steppenwolf. Straight white men in this country have reached our nadir at this point; a glance at the news any given day will convince any idiot of that. I have no problem with critiques of the patriarchy or knocking those in power off their pedestal; I just didn’t see anything on that stage which reflected any sort of lived experience or had anything meaningful to say.
In the couple reviews I read when I got home there’s mention of conflicts between the brothers about life-goals and direction later in the story; some kind of critique of capitalism as well. I didn’t stay long enough to see any of that. Ideas are fine in a play (or in any art) but they can’t be delivered without first selling one on a premise. If you’re gonna write a polemic you better be damn clear on what it is you’re haranguing about. The magic of theater is its capacity to take us into another world—be it kitchen-sink or flight-of-fancy—but this night I was just left fidgeting in my seat. I kept thinking back to the booming music before the play started and those two actors in jumpsuits dancing up and down the aisles. I wanted to watch more of that. Instead, what I got was a failed attempt at a dramatized lecture on the hollowness of the dominant culture. I would’ve been glad to’ve had my assumptions undermined or to’ve even been offended a little. Some of the reviewers of this play wondered whether the playwright was on the side of the white guys or making fun of them. My confusion was more fundamental: I couldn’t believe a single thing I was seeing before my eyes.