By Bill Hirschman
Thinking Cap Theatre’s opening night performance of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men might have been among the best nights of theater in South Florida so far this season.
I say “might have been” because I can’t be sure. It certainly was one of the best acted, one of the best directed works of an insightful script. But the evening was incalculably crippled by about eight drunken thoughtless, self-centered, loudmouthed and rude patrons persistently talking through two acts and screeching out laughter and rejoinders in the tiny theater space, folks who must have learned their audience etiquette from watching Jerry Springer reruns in their underwear at home.
Normally, we wouldn’t dilute the top of a review with such a rant, but more than a few patrons said their experience was damaged by the people whom we can only guess arrived drunk, drank at the bar before the show and then refueled at intermission. Worse, it undercut the company’s ability to make a crucial aspect of the play land completely.
That was a tragedy because director Elizabeth Price and her cast of Jim Gibbons Tom Anello, Noah Levine, Clay Cartland are delivering some of the most skillful and effective work of their careers as they create a middle-class liberal-leaning father and his thirty-something sons convening for Christmas. They smoothly conjure the chemistry of brotherly horseplay and foul-mouthed banter born from decades of affection, the invoking of a lifetime of wacky family traditions, and ending with anguished confrontations that expose their divergent paths, punctuated by impassioned pleas that end in silent impotent standoffs.
Don’t misunderstand: Thinking Cap’s production is intentionally hilarious with endlessly inventive byplay. Some is in Lee’s script; the scene of the quartet singing a parody of “Oklahoma” as if it was an anthem for the KKK is priceless. But much of this finely-grained foolery is created and inserted by Price and her clowns. Laughter is not just desired but impossible to escape.
But we’re guessing the disruptions may account for failure to communicate the message that Lee has outlined in interviews: how an outsider views the titular “ruling class” of 21st Century and its not too pitiable difficulty in finding as satisfying version of the American Dream. In her view, it seems, this well-intentioned privileged class has an unintentionally condescending paternalistic burden to serve others. Interviews with Lee reflect a jaundiced view of this troubled, flawed and unfairly gifted group whose idealistic optimism enabled by that privilege has not carried them through their mid-life angst.
Lee’s ambition of viewing the story from the outside are underscored with Brechtian theatrical techniques. Blaring in-your-face hip hop pointedly at odds with the rest of the evening make up much of the pre-show music. Two African-American actresses in blue jumpsuits dubbed “Person In Charge” welcome the audience as they file in. A curtain speech includes their insistence that they be referred to individually with the pronouns “they and “them.” Then they position the actors in their opening positions like chess pieces before each scene begins. Get it? It’s a meta theatrical thing. Right. And since the Persons In Charge are not straight, white or men, this is their view that the play is depicting. Got it?
What emerged opening night primarily was the sense of people whose primary sin is the compulsion to fix everyone’s problems as they perceive them through their own lens of life experiences, that they cannot understand problems outside that experience, and that, in fact, sometimes there is no problem to fix.
If I haven’t got it quite right, it may because of audience members talking to each other, commenting with grunts and cheers, and laughing uproariously at lines not necessarily meant to be funny.
Or maybe this critic is blinded to Lee’s message by coming from a similar background to the protagonists’. A controversy currently rages between theater artists and arts journalists about whether straight white male critics have the “cultural competency” to adequately evaluate such works — or whether the shortfall belongs to the creative team’s inability to bridge that gap, even though its audience contains straight white men whom the artists hope to reach as well. That’s another day’s discussion.
If the message doesn’t land completely, you cannot ignore the brilliance of the acting and directing. Scanning the script, it’s clear how much this quintet has clothed these roles in visual and aural tweaks, twerks, snorts, ad libs, physical staging and line readings born of fertile imaginations – and every bit in complete service to the play.
The premise brings together Ed (Gibbons), a genial widower with a humanistic ethos; Drew (Cartland), who can’t find a follow-up to his book condemning materialism and is marking time by teaching; Jake (Levine), a dyed in the wool liberal with an interracial marriage but who has made a comfortable life as an establishment banker; and Matt (Anello), a brilliant Harvard prodigy whose outright revolutionary outlook has evaporated to the point that he is temping in a mildly socially conscious organization. He has moved in with Ed, likely to save money to pay off crushing student loans.
The four wallow in hilarious, scatological and irreverent banter developed and honed through decades of living in proximity, including all four wearing plaid Christmas pajamas bought by Ed, jammed onto a single sofa eating Chinese takeout for their Christmas feast.
Suddenly Matt breaks down, sparking everyone to try to analyze his problem and impose solutions born of their differing views of life. It’s here that Lee unreels the straight white men’s zeitgeist, again especially from those who see themselves as progressives. For instance, everyone expected Matt to be a success and a leader because he was so smart, but Jake says he was only able to develop that because he was a privileged male.
Whatever is bugging Matt, he insists that he sees nothing wrong with how his life is working out. His main goal has always been “to be useful” and, indeed, he thinks working as a glorified office boy in this group is achieving that.
One of the productions’ miraculous achievements is how the play starts out as a raucous revel and convincingly morphs into drama until the play ends in a family dissolution.
Price and Thinking Cap deserve an award simply for its perfect casting. Gibbons with that folksy warmth is a perfect senior father who cares for his troubled clan. Anello (Leo in Parade and Burrs in The Wild Party) conquers a terribly difficult role as the tortured brother. Matt is just trying to get on with things without all this attention. Outwardly joining in the comic antics, he is suppressing his painful angst. Therefore, Anello doesn’t get the chance for acting pyrotechnics, yet succeeds in creating a deeply conflicted man.
Cartland and Levine are famous for their off-beat comic chops, which Price allows free rein. They lace every few lines with a unique and quirky spin, or some spasmodic body movement stolen from a Warner Brothers cartoon. Yet, both are completely convincing in their passionate need to help Matt.
Price’s pacing is perfection, letting the rollicking tone dominate the first half and then slowly easing into poignance and pathos punctuated with silences until the play ends at a dead stop. At the same time, she has encouraged her cast to festoon the script with hundreds of credibly integrated grace notes of humor.
For instance, after a wild night of drinking, Lee’s script has Matt gingerly place beer cans in a trash sack, avoiding the comatose Drew on the couch. In Price’s version, Matt devilishly dumps the cans as noisily as he can in the vain hope of a disturbing Drew’s hangover sleep.
Lee, known for highly experimental work produced by her own company, has delivered a fascinating evening although it never is clear why Matt is depressed.
Incidentally, Second Stage Theater has announced that Armie Hammer and Tom Skerritt will appear in a production in July, making Lee the first Asian-American female playwright to be produced on Broadway.
Thinking Cap once again reaffirms its status as one of the most courageous theaters in the region. But it maybe its staff needs to be equipped with tasers.
Program note: Thinking Cap and Vanguard have been hosting a series this year of readings of every Pulitzer Prize play written by women. The last one, Ruined by Lynn Nottage, will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday Jan. 7, directed by Carey Hart.
Straight White Men runs through Jan. 7 from Thinking Cap Theatre. Performance times and dates vary wildly during the holidays. Check the website. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes including one intermission. Performed at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, www.vanguardarts.org. Tickets, $35. For tickets: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2922381 or thinkingcaptheatre.com or (954) 610-7263