NEW YORK — For most of the history of Western civilization, straight white men were invisible. Not that they weren’t seen or heard. On the contrary, they were what playwright Young Jean Lee calls “the default humans,” enjoying a near-monopoly on positions of power in all facets of society. But over the past few years, people have started reexamining the status quo, and terms like “white privilege” and “toxic masculinity” have gained currency.
“There’s been this huge transformation where straight white men are suddenly experiencing what it’s like to have a negative label slapped on them — and all that entails,” says the preternaturally poised Lee, sipping on a drink at a restaurant a few blocks from her apartment in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Lee’s observations helped inspire her to write “Straight White Men,” a subversion of the naturalistic family drama that the New Repertory Theatre is mounting in its New England premiere at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. The New Rep staging comes hot on the heels of a well-received New York production, starring Armie Hammer and Josh Charles, that made Lee the first Asian-American female playwright to have a play produced on Broadway.
As a Korean-American, Lee says, “I’ve been dealing with this labeling and stereotyping all my life, and so have people in other minority groups. With straight white men, it’s new for them to experience having a label put on them and not to be seen as a person. They now have this identity that they have to contend with. And I feel like they’ve had a very natural human reaction to that and are still holding on to their right to just be a human being.”
Despite its provocative title, “Straight White Men” isn’t a sardonic parody. Lee is instead undertaking a microscopic, anthropological study of the species in his natural habitat — showing testosterone-addled horseplay, juvenile jokes, competitive one-upmanship, and easygoing confidence. But rather than merely deriding them, Lee ultimately treats the white men in the play with compassion.
“It’s not an indictment of straight white men,” says cast member Shelley Bolman. “The play asks: How does the patriarchy hurt the people who are part of it? It pinpoints some of the specific damage that straight white men do to ourselves in an attempt to live up to our expectations and fulfill the promise of the American Dream and our expected roles in society.”
Set in the basement rec room of a middle-class family in the Midwest, the play centers on three brothers who have gathered in their childhood home for the Christmas holidays to spend time with their aging, widowed father, Ed (Ken Cheeseman). Wives, girlfriends, and kids are absent. Youngest brother Drew (Michael Kaye) is a prize-winning fiction author, middle child Jake (Dennis Trainor Jr.) is a cocksure banker going through a divorce. Oldest brother Matt (Bolman) had the most promise, yet seems to be stuck in neutral. He’s back living at home and caring for his dad while working a menial temp job.
On the surface, they could be your typical middle American family. Yet their late mother, a woman who fought for social justice, taught them to be aware of their good fortune and the advantages they’ve had in life. “The parents tried to inculcate in their sons the idea that with great power comes great responsibility,” Bolman says.
When Matt bursts into tears out of nowhere over Chinese takeout, it’s apparent that something is awry. His brothers view Matt’s station in life as beneath someone who was a class valedictorian, graduated from Harvard, and aspired to make a difference in the world. “A lot of the play centers around Matt’s inability to do what is expected of him with all of the privilege that he has grown up with and all of the success that he initially had,” says Bolman.
An artist with a reputation for boundary breaking and formal experimentation, Lee works in a collaborative manner to create her shows (which include “We’re Gonna Die,” “The Shipment,” and “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”). She researches her subjects copiously, interviews dozens of people, and gathers actors and friends together for workshops to talk, read dialogue, and improvise scenes or scenarios. For “Straight White Men,” Lee had to discover how guys behave together when women aren’t around. “I had to learn a whole new language, which was basically non-stop [expletive]-talking,” she says. “That’s how love is expressed in that family.”
Lee’s almost-anthropological explorations of identity politics and race can be traced to her own upbringing in tiny Pullman, Wash., as the child of immigrant parents and one of the few minorities in a very white town. As a kid, she was lonely and isolated. “I just remember in nursery school all the kids would be playing together, and I would just be sitting and watching them on the sidelines,” she says. “I’ve always been very curious, and because I was included in so little as a kid, I think that’s just my comfort zone. All of my writing is about being an outsider and not belonging.”
Despite her efforts to understand the specific plight of the straight white male, Lee hesitates to use the word empathy “because it suggests that like people are victims of something,” she says. “It suggests there’s something wrong with Matt, that he’s some tragic figure, even though he keeps insisting he’s not.”
For Lee, the play explores the “huge blindspot” we have in our culture right now regarding class issues. “Almost nobody sees it this way, but for me the play is about a capitalist value system and how unbalanced it’s become in a frightening way,” she says. “I don’t want a world where we have this much economic inequality, but I’m just the one who has the money. That shouldn’t be the goal. Even though identity politics has improved my life vastly, I don’t think it’s a sufficient answer for me just to become part of the one percent.”
Straight White Men
Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, Sept. 7-30. Tickets $25-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.