Straight White Men; Outside Mullingar
by Myron Meisel
Straight White Men: What’cha gonna do?
Straight White Men: Richard Riehle, Gary Wilmes, Frank Boyd and Brian Slaten (photo by Craig Schwartz)
As a theater critic, I find myself writing perhaps disproportionally about plays with race, gender and sexuality issues — those subjects being responsible for a disproportionate amount of the most meaningful work being created — for which I am arguably ill-equipped to discuss, falling back on the presumptive faith that art is still art. Ironically, it appears that I also may be equally disqualified to review a play titled, and about, Straight White Men, or at least still constrained to tread on eggshells.
Requisite confession: I am a straight white male. Worse, an excessively privileged straight white male (unless you regard that as a redundancy). It may not be how I choose to identify myself within my own consciousness, but society requires me to accept those aspects of myself as being who I am. It is a mantle not to be borne lightly, as drolly sketched in Young Jean Lee’s play, though never to be mistaken for a burden.
The perquisites of privilege are so inescapably fulsome and intrinsically unfair, and so inadequately copped to, that it may just be impossible for such men to behave well enough in a world that favors us so reflexively to the detriment of the validity and opportunity of everyone else. Apologies and penance are required, nay demanded, but never remotely adequate (that sounds so unacceptably whiny, doesn’t it?).
Lee milks the hapless absurdity of this existential quandary both for derisive laughs and a scintilla of poignant pathos. In a universe unimaginable to My Three Sons, three brothers join their widowed father in the old family room to celebrate Christmas Eve and the inevitable day after. Matt, the eldest (Brian Slaten) lives with and tends to the needs of dad Ed (Richard Riehle), so economically crushed by student loans from a futile decade of grad school he retreats into emotionally stunted underachievement. Jake, the attention-grabbing middle brother (Gary Wilmes), a banker and recently divorced, may be the most articulately self-aware, though he ignores virtually all his insights in conducting his own life. The youngest, Drew (Frank Boyd), has been a successful novelist and professor, but worries that his new work may be hollower.
The two visiting boys amuse themselves with a hilarious parody of the board game Monopoly devised by their late mother, entitled “Privilege,” which reveals that these apparently clichéd bruising bros have been thoroughgoingly schooled in awareness of their patriarchal prerogatives. Matt, as devotedly and effacingly service-absorbed as any mom, wife or daughter, arrives with Dad, who promptly announces that this year, for the first time, he will not be donning the Santa suit. (Being avuncular, and this most decidedly, despite all, a Christmas play, he ends up playing St. Nick nevertheless, which will become yet another role that’s rejected.)
While Lee has certainly concluded that there have been already far too many plays about her eponymous protagonists (I can share her opinion, if not her pain), she nevertheless contrives to write one more, a send-up that dances along that rather thick line between outright lampoon and critical empathy. As an observer, she’s both acute and dismissive; as an analyst, she snatches the low-hanging fruit but mindfully eschews context; as a playwright, she’s daring and individual, setting herself up to fail and still surprisingly wrangling severe swings of tone into a coherent, if woozy, vision.
The relentless cartoonish antics of deliberately exaggerated male-bonding shenanigans may be distilled satiric essences, though they become almost immediately tiresome, an effect that I presume is entirely intended to seem excessively prolonged. Indeed, the play mostly reads as a fierce deconstruction of the conventional dramaturgy of masculine navel-gazing, a venerable tradition understandably deemed to be past its expiration date.
On the other hand, while unquestionably the battle to chip away at entrenched male supremacy remains not far past its initial skirmishes, part of Lee’s point is that the points she is making have already been substantially internalized by the well-meaning liberal intelligentsia that inevitably ends up irretrievably clueless in its own enlightened way. Indeed, there seems to be little all that fresh in Lee’s themes, other than the sheer verve and audacity of her confident authorial personality.
Nevertheless, for all the text’s wayward pendulum swings, what saves it from smart-alecky preciousness turns out, rather surprisingly, to be an underlying compassion, however masked, for the dilemmas these caricatures of men confront. Because a world that will approach greater true equality will inevitably do so because of our common human frailties, mediocrities and inability to discern our purpose. If the disenfranchised can eventually start to aspire to whatever they choose, they too will deal equally with the demoralizing prospect of figuring out what we want and who we can be.
A Blarney-rific Outside Mullingar
Bob Verini’s Stage Raw review of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar places the show squarely within its proper context, and though much of his take is unassailable, I regard the play with more susceptible affection — though in the Irish manner, all such sentiment and despair are to be doubted in equal measure.
Paradoxically, the categorically disparate Shanley and the Young Jean Lee plays, seen on consecutive days, display surprising commonalities. Outside Mullingar spends a good portion of its length so scrupulously impersonating every imaginable element of Irish dramaturgy that it’s hard not to experience it as implacably straight-faced, shot-on parody, undertaken with the utmost sincerity.
Then, in its sneaky and deft way, Shanley’s incontestable agility with outsized lyricism and moony desire barrels through the bald imitation and takes hold. To one prone to depression and desire, it can be nigh irresistible, laughing a lot and crying even more. It’s blarney-rific.
Of course, one could call it manipulative and get no argument, and even fraudulent, although I prefer to consider it unalloyed fantasy, from its wish-fulfillment deathbed emotional reconciliation to its poetry of incessant stubbornness, disputation and complaint.
As dream worlds go, perhaps that of the fiery colleen won in battle by the assertive American male in John Ford’s The Quiet Man may be more bracing than the terminally shy repression of Shanley’s recessive, virginal Irishman tethered to the soil, but at least the otherwordly patience of wiser women who wait to tongue-lash the men from their craven callowness conveys a credible semblance of catharsis. Beyond the echoes of a century of Irish stage conventions, there’s even a dash of Shavian dudgeon to the arguments between the sexes.
It’s nice in this jaded age to partake in the giddy release of an embrace and a kiss a lifetime delayed, or at least, so it feels in the moment, especially in the womb of an audience that nearly uniformly shares the enthusiasm.
Straight White Men, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; no performance Nov. 27; through December 20. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org. Running time: one hour, 30 minutes.
Outside Mullingar, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 3 and 8 p.m. Sun. 2 and 7 pm (dark Nov. 27; additional perf. on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m.); through Dec. 20. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: one hour, 40 minutes.