Steppenwolf's 'Straight White Men' confronts privilege, but feels slight

“Write about what you know,” young writers are told. It's typically sound advice. Yet playwright Young Jean Lee takes the opposite approach.

“When starting a play, I ask myself, 'What's the last show in the world I would ever want to make?' Then I force myself to make it,” Lee says in the program to Steppenwolf Theatre's new play, “Straight White Men,” which she wrote and is also in town to direct.

Although Lee might be admirable for her determination to get “out of my comfort zone” and directly confront what's generally referred to as “the other,” especially in the caustic current polarized political environment, what she knows about white men is barely enough to flesh out a 90-minute play.

Which means that what she doesn't know about white men is a lot, and it shows in a production that feels slight and half-finished, for all its best intentions.

“Straight White Men” imagines the ever-endearing Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder as a widowed father to three adult sons home for Christmas: Brian Slaten's Matt, a top-of-his-class Harvard grad who's already come home to live under the burden of student loans; Madison Dirks' Jake, a good-natured but self-admitted “hypocrite” as a corporate banker; and Ryan Hallahan's Drew, a novelist and college professor.

The twist here, where the title is concerned, is that these three men were instilled by their parents with a decided aversion to the usual sense of white entitlement. In fact, their mother even remodeled a Monopoly board to teach lessons on “Privilege,” such as your elitist white class status won't necessarily protect you from the police, so go directly to jail.

Yet they're also all varying cases of arrested development, re-enacting the inside jokes and the playful wrassling of their childhood.

This supplies the play with its most pleasant moments, defying expectations, as when Wilder's dad deals out a set of “Christmas Eve pajamas” and they soon break into a spontaneous dance party.

Each actor embodies his character, however well-developed, and Lee's direction is lively and spirited.

Yet Lee also seems determined to defy the usual audience expectations at Steppenwolf, and that doesn't go as well, even with the contrived and somewhat condescending framing device in which transgender actors welcome the audience to the play and place the main players in their spots at the start of each scene.

The trademark Steppenwolf physicality is present in the persistent horseplay, and the play drops numerous hints about a hidden secret. There's a reference to how the boys played “Gay Chicken” in their teen years, daring themselves and others to act out homosexual stereotypes, and it doesn't go unnoticed with Lee's direction that Matt is the one always cleaning up, the one most considerate of others and, not incidentally, the best dancer in that impromptu boogie-down session.

The play seems poised on the verge of one of those great Steppenwolf moments of violent catharsis, especially after Jake says, “It's a world of pigs, and if you're not a pig you're” out of luck, in no uncertain terms. Yet that moment never arrives.

While a critic would be hard-pressed to make the case that the play is inert and leaves nothing changed — its final point is especially valid given Lee's feeling that it's best to get out of your comfort zone — it wouldn't be wrong to insist that the payoff isn't quite up to the setup, a case of thwarted expectations that leaves the audience feeling as if it's been toyed with.

Maybe that's the point. Or just maybe the company, and Lee, might have imagined a different cultural landscape for this play to thrive in when it was scheduled long before last fall's election. The “Hillary 2016” and “I'm with her” stickers tacked up in the background are damning evidence of that alternative reality these well-meaning if flawed men might have imagined.

Yet those political stickers, along with the pink flowered bathroom that is the enduring final expression of the missing mother, are the saddest and most poignant things in this production; expectations or not, it just ain't Steppenwolf when the scenery is more pointed than the acting and the drama.

“Straight White Men”

★ ★ ½

<b>Location:</b> Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, <a href=""></a>

<b>Showtimes:</b> 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through March 19

<b>Tickets:</b> $20-$89

<b>Running time:</b> About 90 minutes

<b>Parking:</b> Pay garage adjacent to the theater, limited street parking available

<b>Rating:</b> For mature audiences

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