Total Rating: 
March 19, 2017
Steppenwolf Theater
Theater Type: 
Steppenwolf Theater
Theater Address: 
1650 North Halsted Street
Dark Comedy
Young Jean Lee

They are so ubiquitous that we rarely even have to speak their name. They are the "baseline" against which metabolic functions, pharmaceutical dosages, and testimonial accuracy are measured. They are also often the loneliest creatures on earth.

in In Straight White Men, playwright Young Jean Lee invites us to observe four examples of this demographic — a clan patriarch and his three sons — viewed on Christmas Eve. A pair of gender-ambiguous Koken pose them like diorama mannequins in a basement rec room (now serving as a museum for toys spanning the evolution from board games to electronic pastimes), in preparation for a bachelor holiday celebrated with meals ordered in, taken out or gobbled from Costco-sized jars of snacks.

Hosting the annual reunion is retired engineer and clan patriarch Ed. Guests include banker son Jake, university professor/book author son Drew and then there's Matt — a gung-ho student activist, Harvard graduate, volunteer tutor in Ghana and Stanford Ph.D. candidate, who abruptly dropped out, citing student loan debts, to move back home, where he now works a part-time low-level clerical job for a nonprofit and helps out around the house. Matt bakes pies, he wipes up spills — boys love to make messes, you know — and sometimes he succumbs to brief, but unexplained, crying jags.

If this were a non-WASP family, Matt would be the "good son" watching over the elders. If the boys had a sister, tradition would have automatically assigned her these duties. If the lone parent had been a widowed mother, no one would question the necessity of kin providing full-time care. It isn't, they don't and he's not, however, and so Matt's temporary impasse is seen as a pathological condition in need of remedy. It doesn't matter that Jake resents the compromises he made in order to ensure his success (notably, his recent divorce from his African-American wife and mixed-race children), or that Drew came to accept his accomplishments only after extensive psychoanalysis, or that Ed's nostalgic idealization of the narrow choices open to men of a certain culture belies the delight he now takes in his used BMW, guitar lessons and puffin collection.

When the major part of your dialogue is the familiar manspeak of potty jokes, orifice-based epithets, grunts, howls, and barks, punctuated by retro-hormonal kinetic seizures, it's not easy to reject sketch-comedy caricature, as the company assembled for this Steppenwolf production does, to instead articulate (intelligently, insightfully, and compassionately) the breadth of existential pressure exerted upon favored offspring by an impatient society demanding immediate return on their investment.

This review first appeared in Windy City Times, 2/17
Mary Shen Barnidge
Date Reviewed: 
February 2017