By Young Jean Lee. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin and Fay Nass. An Itsazoo production. At Gateway Theatre on Friday, February 7. Continues until February 15
Satire, characteristically exaggerated, calls for an understanding of the normality that it lampoons. When presented in a style that borders on realism, there is a risk of its being taken at face value, voiding any critique. Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men teeters on that edge, but through a well-employed structural device, it presents a portrait of familial crisis that can be examined within its narrative beats or the satirical framework surrounding it.
It’s Christmastime at the Norton household, and Ed (Peter Anderson) has invited his sons over for their usual holiday get-together. Jake (Carlo Marks) and Drew (Sebastien Archibald), the younger of the brothers, trade barbs and recall old memories, from name-calling to racially charged activities they participated in. Matt (Daniel Martin), the eldest, had moved in with Ed, helping him around the home. When Matt suddenly breaks down in tears at dinner without explanation, the family are forced to question their presumptions about his contentment with his life. Two Persons in Charge (Kim Villagante and Raven John) view these events outside the narrative, setting the men’s scenes like tableaux.
With its expository style and overt racial discussion, Lee’s script seems to invite a reading of it as parody—a sketch of the titular group by an outsider who imagines such narrow topics define them. As an indictment of the limited dynamics typically offered through marginal roles for minorities, her mainstream characters appear to embody a history of specious depictions in turn, contrasted by two uncompromised, gender-nonconforming characters in charge. Inside the fourth wall, Matt’s character is an additional source for metaphor—seeing no apparent cause for his lack of career ambition, his family supply theories that speak deeper to their own biases than his, not unlike the shorthand of labelling minorities whose lifestyles do not fit into a predominant culture. At face value, Matt’s failure to meet standards expected of someone of his privilege, with his Ivy League degree underused, invites scrutiny of a social system that promotes unsustainable ideals.
Directors Chelsea Haberlin and Fay Nass accentuate Lee’s caricatures with a literal border, a proscenium-wide gilded picture frame through which all is considered. Set designer Shizuka Kai dresses Ed’s living room with a naturalistic rigour, filling it with the creature comforts of home, from a malt-coloured loveseat to a well-stocked liquor cabinet. Beyond the frame, a chaise longue and translucent curtains accompany the Persons in Charge, observing from the fringes of the stage. Villagante and John are spectacularly entertaining in their roles, adding buoyancy to otherwise purposefully contained performances. Archibald and Marks are suitably impetuous as the younger siblings, but Martin’s inconsistent accent is either perfectly Brechtian or simply distracting. Anderson’s Ed is functional, but feels less spontaneous than some exchanges require.
From the provocation of its title, one may infer that Lee’s satire specifically concerns the group in question, but it’s my opinion that it is an audacious commentary on marginalization, as filtered through an inverse power dynamic, that of a minority representing the majority.