Washington Ensemble Theatre bills Straight White Men as family drama about white privilege, progressive entitlement, and hypocrisy. Those themes are certainly present throughout, in that characters discuss them openly and loudly and also play a board game called Privilege. Not present: relatable human interaction.
The titular straight white men from playwright Young Jean Lee are three proudly progressive sons and their similarly minded father who shack up at Dad's house on Christmas Eve for some nice normal holiday frivolity between adults, like changing into full length jammies and gorging on pie together straight out of the baking dish. Keeping these holiday traditions is of some great importance for reasons never fully articulated. But when they stray from night's required pageantry, middle brother Jake (Andy Buffelen) drinks a bunch of whiskey, puts on some Yelle, and lures the whole gang into ecstatic dance.
That dance, which closes out the second act, is just one instance of characters failing to behave recognizably, which continues to distract from play's thesis. I'm not sure how it reads on the page, but most of the dialogue felt performed by people who study brothers from afar, took notes on guys being bros in movies, but have never actually been in a room with two or more brothers. Jake and baby brother Drew (Sam Turner) spend most of the play yelling for various reasons, purple nurple-ing, but also singing a lot. Frank Boyd gives the only believable performance (and it's a legitimately good one) as the keen and quiet eldest brother Matt. But he has the least to do until the play's denouement and mainly sulks in the background, observing his family and guarding his thoughts. He does at one point pretend to be a pterodactyl.
Director Sara Porkalob—a knockout performer recently seen blowing the roof off her one person show Dragon Lady—imbues each character with much of that bulldozing energy. But the mania perplexes in what turns out to be a somber reflection on privilege and success. It's as if Porkalob can't decide whether this is satire or some real slice-of-life theater. As satire, the characters don't go far enough into the woke white dude stereotype. As a believable family drama, well, only one character is even close to believable. Instead, we get performances that shift wildly from broad and boorish to inexplicably self-reflective.
Straight White Men does have things to say, and it almost gets at a few points about whiteness I want unpacked and packaged into a different production. Two fourth wall–breaking, nonwhite queer characters open things up by explaining to the audience how to be cognizant of pronouns, then return in between scenes to reset the stage and reposition the characters, inviting the audience to view the play through them. Porkalob and company do put on stage a few clear and effective examples of obliviousness among self-proclaimed progressive white folk. And the character of Matt brings up surprising questions about privilege and expectation when you've been set up for success. But in the end, nothing gets past the loud and inauthentic performances.
Straight White Men
12th Avenue Arts, Thru Feb 2
UPDATED 1/17/18: This change correctly lists Sam Turner as the character Drew, not Andy Buffalen.