Straight White Men (La Boite & State Theatre Company)
La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre
July 27 – August 13
“Straight White Men” is a difficult show to review. From the initial moments of its experience it subverts expectations by blasting the awaiting audience with an uncomfortably loud, rattling pre-show soundtrack of female hip-hop music, complete with explicit lyrics, before beginning with a stage manager (nominated by its Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee to be a non-gender-conforming female of colour), greeting the audience.
In contrast, the story itself begins simply enough with initial scenes that appear to emulate family sitcom conventions. What seems to be constructed as a classic American family drama (set somewhere in its Midwest), however, emerges as so much more as it probes the construct of masculine identity. The work, brought to Queensland by La Boite Theatre Company in collaboration with State Theatre Company of South Australia, explores what could be perceived as the oldest birth privilege around – to be a straight white man.
When recently-widowed Ed (Roger Newcombe) welcomes his middle-aged sons home for Christmas, their exuberant celebration and sibling hijinks are but a veneer to the question of privilege. All of the men are successful; the youngest, Drew (Lucas Stibbard) is an award-winning writer, middle-brother Jake (Chris Pitman) is a hotshot banker who refuses to apologise for his success and eldest sibling Matt (Hugh Parker) has been working a series of temp jobs at social organisations, but is living with his Dad as he attempts to repay his student loans. Harvard graduate Matt, traditionally acknowledged as the brightest of the three, has a long history of championing minorities, yet questions what he is meant to do with his life, which leads to his sudden breakdown in tears, without apparent reason or explanation, during a night of Chinese food and foolery.
Although the switch from parody to provocation is subtle, more recognisable in retrospect than experience, the distinct chapters to the show’s tone sometimes labour its rhythm. For example, after teasing and mocking each other in brotherly banter and having too much to drink, characters engage in a dance off, which, although fabulously funny, drags long beyond its natural endpoint.
As the rowdiest of the brothers, Pitman gives an engaging performance as the least likeable of the siblings. And Stibbard is similarly solid as the put-upon youngest brother Drew. But appropriately for a play that is primarily about Matt’s experience in just trying to stay out of the way of life, Parker gives a layered performance that hints at his inner sorrow well before his character’s tearful breakdown, proving what an asset he is to any production.
Rounding out the cast is Newcombe as their loveable dad, adorable in his insistence that they adhere to traditions like Christmas pyjamas and attempt to join in their dance party, and Stagehand-In-Charge Merlynn Tong who, through the simplest of smiles and nods, brings a humour to the role to make it more than just a meta-theatrical device.
Appropriately, the one-room middle-class family drama takes place in a white living room (designed by Victoria Lamb), naturalistic in aesthetic thanks also to Ben Hughes’ lighting. Further bringing Lee’s script to life is the music composed by Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, La Boite Artist-in-Resident and musical director of Black Honey Company. Still, holistically, the work seems unsatisfying, particularly in its conclusion and it is its cast that ultimately carries its success.
Although relatively simple, the plot’s universal appeal suffers from the playwright’s requirement for there to be no alterations, meaning that the character’s jarring American accents and the narrative’s US references, alienate rather than appeal. Still, the show’s examination of the notions of ambition, activism and the value of capitalist ideas of success provide valuable consideration in any western culture. And as a satire and show of social consideration, “Straight White Men” represents the deep and diverse theatre at the core of La Boite’s artistic vision and thus Brisbane’s dynamic theatre culture.