Part satire and part family drama, Straight White Men is a critique of society at large powered by three factors: pride, privilege and a bit of pie.
As three sons and their father come together in an American family home to celebrate long held traditions they take part in some typical male bonding. There are fights, both physical and verbal, jokes, the sharing of memories, and a simmering air of competition between all of the characters (Ed, Matt, Jake and Drew).
Except that is for Matt (Hugh Parker), the brilliant son who has done nothing with his life since leaving university. He works a temp job and lives at home with his father.
Matt has no ambition. Matt has no goals. Matt isn’t accomplishing anything in his life and he doesn’t have a girlfriend. He’s a “loser for no reason”. Is he depressed? Is he rebelling? Does he care? What’s wrong with Matt?
His brothers and father are utterly baffled by his circumstances and each one tries to find, or forces a solution to Matt’s troubles. Their sometimes funny, sometimes crushing cures are those one would expect from straight white men. Humour, scorn and shame are elemental motivators in their world.
Yet, the characterisation of the men is not without empathy. They aren’t rude caricatures, and while they share similarities, each of them (a banker, writer, retiree and homebody) has their own view on the world. Nescha Jelk’s direction shines in highlighting these differences, while the suburban set design and subtle lighting drive home the existential angst bubbling below the surface.
Christ Pitman, who plays bullish banker, is a standout in the cast with his oafish mask disguising an intimate understanding of society’s ills. All other performances are sound, save occasional slips of the American accent.
The family’s deceased matriarch is a crucial character simply through her absence. Certain lines, props and moods betray the gaping hole her departure has left in these men’s lives, and they are poorer without her.
The one (living) female role of Straight White Men is that of the Stage Hand in Charge, played with charm by Alexis West. This character/stage worker is never in the scene so much as without it, but her presence brings the show’s bulging white masculinity into sharp relief. It is a shame that this character is not utilised more in the script.
Few answers are given to the questions raised in Straight White Men. Audiences should be cautioned on this point, and be prepared to ponder their own personal quandaries once the piece wraps up.
A lack of resolution does at times put the audience at a distance from the characters on stage too. While their experiences are generally relatable, the more sad scenes are sometimes perplexing for a lack of deeper knowledge about the characters’ motivations.
Then again, that’s sort of the point. Young Jean Lee’s script forces the audience to confront home truths about inequity and society in general. Straight White Men is not just a play about those with privilege, but everyone who participates in the world we construct daily.
Straight White Men continues at the Space Theatre until Saturday, July 23 statetheatrecompany.com.au
Photos: Kate Pardey