Armie Hammer made his Broadway debut tonight in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men.” The good news is that Armie, known for “The Social Network” and “Call Me By Your Name,” nails it–he’s got excellent presence, great projection, and retains his star appeal on stage as Drew, the novelist among a trio of brothers. We’ll see him up there again.
The bad news is that Young Jean Lee’s play is tedious, forced, and has no dramatic tension. Lee is being billed in the PR as “the first female Asian playwright on Broadway.” The truth is, if “Straight White Men” didn’t have an all-star cast and a top notch director (Anna Shapiro), it would be way off Broadway.
Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, very accomplished actors, play Hammer’s brothers, Jake and Matt. This pair has has come home for Christmas to join Matt and their widowed father (Stephen Payne) for the first time since Mom died. There’s a lot of brothers’ horseplay, and the trio clearly care about each other. In time, though, it’s revealed that Schneider has decided to move in with dad and work at a nothing job. He has no ambition and can’t express why. The brothers, without motivation, turn on him. Out of nowhere.
But since Schneider never gives a reason– he’s a Harvard grad, after all–the play becomes a tedious exploration of white privilege. There’s a lot of filler in “Straight White Men”– rough-housing, dancing, long conversations about the boys’ being straight white men. You get the feeling that Lee thinks she’s discovered lightning. But there are no revelations, and nothing to resolve.
Let’s backtrack for a minute, though: when you enter the Hayes Theater (it used to be the Helen Hayes Theater, but that was too hard for people to remember apparently) there’s loud rap music playing. Really loud. There’s a silvery Las Vegas type curtain. Two people come out who you might think are women. They introduce themselves as “non binary.” They’re listed in the program as Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2. They tell their own stories, too irrelevant to get into here, and then lead the main actors onto the stage. I am just not hip enough to understand what they are doing.
I’m guessing a lot of people will think this pretentious nonsense is very, very clever, a real comment on “straight white men” by two people who declare that they are not “straight white men.” Great! I would have liked a fully formed story of the three brothers, their father, why they feel compelled to comment endlessly on their privilege, and for someone to explain why Matt prefers not to have a life.
This is a persistent problem in new plays: no third act. No pay off. “Straight White Men” is 90 minutes without an intermission. Producers do this because no one could come back for the Second Act. When the silvery Vegas curtain falls for a minute at the 45 minute mark, you have no reason to stay– there is no peril, nothing is up for grabs, and you don’t really care what happens. But if you can grab a decently discounted ticket, I guess the upside is you see some good acting by four talented men.