“Straight White Men,” the latest offering from Second Stage Theater, was not created by straight white men. The playwright is Young Jean Lee, in her Broadway debut, and Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) is at the helm. Which is a clue that this quirky comic drama is not just about these types, lately maligned as villains in American culture, but also about society’s perception of them.
To emphasize that the piece is not controlled by straight white men, Lee has devised offbeat “persons in charge” — Kate Bornstein, the illustrious performance artist who identifies as nonbinary, and Ty Defoe, a member of the Oneida and Ojibwe nations who identifies as Two-Spirit. These hosts serve up a wry pre-show speech about gender identity and “finding understanding for straight white men.” They preside over the proceedings like wise, gentle spirits.
The privileged men in question are three handsome brothers in their early 40s and their elderly father, reuniting for Christmas in Dad’s comfy house somewhere in the Midwest. Drew, the youngest, is a teacher and popular author of socially aware novels. Jake, recently divorced with two kids, is a successful BMW-driving banker.
The eldest, Matt, was a promising Harvard grad with multiple degrees but has lost his way. He’s moved back with his dad, working a temp clerical job, and performs housekeeping duties their mom did up until she died a few years earlier. He claims he is content.
According to this play, straight white men regress to puffed-up brats when left to their own devices without women. They devour Nintendo. They gorge on snacks. They crack raunchy jokes. They fight over, well, everything. They perform rap nursery rhymes. They dance like they’re in a boy band. They turn into screeching monsters like “Pterodactyl Man.” They call each other names like “dickhead” and “shit-baby.”
But as portrayed by Armie Hammer (Drew), Josh Charles (Jake), and Paul Schneider (Matt), their antics are suffused with charm and affection. If they weren’t likable on some level, the play would utterly fall flat. All three actors, known for their television and film work (remember how the foxy Hammer caused a commotion for his turn in “Call Me By Your Name?”), are newcomers to Broadway and command the stage with finesse.
Their no-nonsense father (Stephen Payne, who, after plenty of backstage drama, is the third actor to fill the role) did his best to follow the rules and provide for his wife and kids.
Not that all straight white men are without feelings. When Matt suddenly breaks down in tears in the middle of their Chinese takeout dinner, the tone shifts and Drew overreacts. On the one hand he offers help, insisting Matt see a therapist. On the other, he berates his bro for showing weakness and settling for a life of mediocrity.
Jake admits to being a pig, a common trait in straight white men.
“I give my friends shit for acting gay,” he says. “I joke about which interns I want to fuck. Every single VP at my company is white… all I do is reinforce a system that keeps us on top.”
Apparently, it is okay for straight white men to exhibit homoerotic behavior, as long as it’s just an act. Their roughhousing requires them to twist each other’s nipples and hump each other and karate-chop each other’s junk. They recall a game played with their buddies called “Gay Chicken,” where they dared to do stuff like put their balls on each other faces. And worse.
With all the fighting and dancing and physical comedy, Shapiro needed to bring in a choreographer, Faye Driscoll. With her help, the actors make the moves seems effortless and entertaining.
The twitchy, genre-busting drama asks if all straight white men must have naked ambition and a laser-focused career to succeed or if, like Matt, simply feeling useful is enough. Jake answers that question.
“It’s a world of pigs, and Matt is not a pig. But if you’re not a pig, you’re fucked!”
STRAIGHT WHITE MEN | Second Stage | Helen Haye Theater, 240 W. 44th St. | Through Sep 9: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; | Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; | Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$149 at 2ST.com | Ninety mins., no intermission