Left – John Gaden and Hamish Michael. Photo – Jeff Busby
Straight White Men arrives on our shores with the promise that audiences will be disturbed and ‘blindsided’; that they’ll come away feeling like they’ve had a ‘knife in the gut’. The reality of this MTC production doesn’t quite match the hype. Straight White Men asks some critical social and political questions, but it is far from a confronting take on white male privilege. And at the end of the evening, we’re more entertained than we are challenged.
It’s Christmas. Matt (Gareth Reeves) has moved in with his recently widowed father, Ed (John Gaden). Joining them to celebrate the holidays are Matt’s brothers Drew (Hamish Michael) and Jake (Luke Ryan). The brothers soon fall into the old rough-and-tumble of their childhood, squabbling, wrestling and generally trying to out-irritate each other. They reminisce about non-PC pranks in the playground when they were boys, and drag out of the store cupboard an old game called Privilege, an amusement concocted by their late mother to teach them not to take the advantages they have – as white, middle-class Americans – for granted.
They are, truth be told, quite a likeable lot: you know you should shrink a little from their attitudes, but you can’t help but be charmed by their enthusiasm and the genuine warmth between them. But the mood starts to shift when they’re crammed onto the lounge eating Chinese takeaway and Matt, out of the blue, begins to cry.
Ed, Drew and Jake struggle to pinpoint the cause of Matt’s tears. Of all the family, it’s Matt who has most taken his mother’s precepts to heart – after ten years, he’s abandoned graduate study to work as a temp at a local aid agency. He has a bucket-load of student debt and seems uncertain about the way forward. And in delving into Matt’s predicament the men open out questions of how best to address the privilege they’ve been granted.
How do those who have been traditionally advantaged best proceed? Do they allow the wealth they’ve acquired to be redistributed more fairly? Is it enough merely to be generous with what they have, giving to those less fortunate than themselves? Or, in the end, is the only important thing protecting their own skins, even if that means denying rights and opportunities to those who aren’t straight, white and male?
It’s here that Straight White Men feels like it’s about to really take off. Writer Young Jean Lee puts her arguments in play – and they’re crucial arguments – but she fails to develop them. We get a flash of bluster here, a moment of insight there, but nothing is sustained (it’s a play that’s begging for at least one more act). Even the device of bringing the non-male, non-white stage-manager (Candy Bowers) on stage, having her presage the main action of the play with a confronting soundtrack of female rap music, as a way of giving these men’s lives some context, seems half-baked. She’s not utilised enough to be meaningful and ends as little more than a sporadic distraction.
Young Jean Lee seems reluctant to follow through on the tensions she introduces here, evading any deeper exploration by retreating to the surer ground of the brothers’ clowning. And there’s a lot of light-hearted filler in this play. It makes it fun to watch, but take out the dance numbers and the comical piece with the vacuum cleaner, and you’re probably left with about twenty minutes of substance.
Sarah Giles’ direction is inconspicuous and all the more effective for being so. The movement is fluid, the action sharply choreographed, and she has drawn assured performances from all her actors. In fact, the great joy of this production is watching four actors work so beautifully together: you believe these men have known each other all their lives. Each of the actors completely inhabits their character, and are convincing despite their roles being underwritten. John Gaden, in particular, locates just the right note, negotiating Ed’s cumbersome reversal at the play’s conclusion with aplomb.
Light, sound and set design (Lisa Mibus, David Heinrich and Eugyeene Teh) are all strong but unfussy, supporting the action without obtruding. And special mention to costume designer Eugyeene Teh for the boys’ pyjamas and the wonderful puffin sweater.
As strong as this production is, the play itself lacks punch. And despite Young Jean Lee’s claims for the play, you have to wonder what audiences will take away from Straight White Men apart from the memory of an enjoyable night out (and some very loud music).
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Straight White Men
by Young Jean Lee
Director Sarah Giles
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 6 May – 18 June 2016
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au