WATERTOWN — For women, gay people, and people of color, it’s an all-too-familiar sensation to see stage or screen depictions of their lives, beliefs, and behavior that were written by straight white males.
The shoe is on the other foot in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre. Yet while the play’s title hints at a polemical takedown, what Lee delivers is more intricate and artful — even sympathetic — than that.
Lee, who is Korean-American, possesses an arrestingly original voice that she has used to discombobulate audiences with such works as “The Shipment,’’ “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,’’ and the solo piece “We’re Gonna Die,’’ which was presented locally two years ago by Company One Theatre and the American Repertory Theater. In an unusual quirk of timing, the New Rep’s regional debut of “Straight White Men’’ coincides almost exactly with the end of its limited engagement at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York, where it became the first work by an Asian-American female playwright to be presented on Broadway, following an earlier run off-Broadway.
Flawed and sometimes exasperating though it is, “Straight White Men’’ adds up to an intriguing, even illuminating take on questions of status and privilege. This is so in no small part because Lee shrewdly employs a framing device that complicates and sharpens our perspective on the play’s otherwise banal-seeming characters and events.
The effect is to give “Straight White Men,’’ directed at New Rep by Elaine Vaan Hogue, the quality of an anthropological study. We in the audience observe and appraise the playing out of a subculture’s arcane rituals, the twist being that the social group under our microscope consists of four white guys in a middle-class Midwestern family — in other words, figures who would typically be seen as representatives of the dominant culture. But the key to understanding the playwright’s intentions lies with a fifth character, called the Person in Charge, a nonwhite, gender-nonconforming figure portrayed by the charismatic Dev Blair.
Following the playwright’s instructions, the New Rep audience is immersed before the show in ear-splitting, bass-heavy, sexually explicit rap music. As the music engulfs the theater, Blair — attired in silver jacket, shorts, silver sneakers, dangling earrings and a necklace — dances about the stage and occasionally ventures up the aisles to engage members of the audience. Delivering a scripted pre-show speech, Blair acknowledges that the music “may have made some of you uncomfortable’’ before adding dryly: “We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account.’’ Point taken.
Blair reappears at intervals throughout the play, assisting with scene changes and — more pertinently when it comes to the point of view Lee wants us to keep in mind — posing the actors in the positions with which their characters will begin each scene, like a puppeteer or the curator of a sociology-themed diorama. They consist of widower Ed (Ken Cheeseman) and his adult sons, Jake (an intense Dennis Trainor Jr.), a recently divorced banker; Drew (Michael Kaye), a novelist and teacher; and Matt (Shelley Bolman), a onetime prodigy who has moved back in with Ed and holds a menial temp job in an office.
Father and sons have gathered at Christmas in Ed’s sedate, beige-toned living room, whose spot-on design is by Afsoon Pajoufar. These are not Mamet men; they’re a pretty woke bunch, to judge by their discussions of racism and white privilege. Nonetheless, the brothers constantly engage in horseplay, name-calling, and callbacks to adolescent routines, as if it’s their preferred means of communication. Playwright Lee indulges in too much of this (and also in an admittedly entertaining dance break), wasting time that would be better spent sharpening the somewhat blurry profiles of the brothers and giving us a firmer sense of the relationships among themselves and with their father.
Matters turn somber when suddenly, as the foursome are eating Chinese food on the sofa, Matt begins to cry. The focus shifts to why Harvard-educated Matt seems professionally and emotionally stalled. Drew vehemently insists that Matt is wasting his life, while Jake maintains that Matt is behaving selflessly by “deferring to people who don’t have your unfair advantages,’’ adding: “Our success is a problem, not a solution! . . . White guys like us shouldn’t be running things.’’ But Jake acknowledges his own hypocrisy, admitting that his workplace behavior does not match his words.
Matt himself is not very forthcoming with an explanation for his inability to move forward with his life, and playwright Lee smartly doesn’t offer one either. Instead, she leaves questions lingering in the air about the relentless pressure to succeed in America and about whether straight white men, for all their unfair advantages, just might find the pursuit of happiness as exhausting as everybody else does.
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN
Play by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue
Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through Sept. 30. Tickets $25-$67. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org