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Straight White Men, Southwark Playhouse review - an exciting Korean-American playwright arrives in the UK | reviews, news & interviews

Straight White Men, Southwark Playhouse review - an exciting Korean-American playwright arrives in the UK

Straight White Men, Southwark Playhouse review - an exciting Korean-American playwright arrives in the UK

Hilarious and probing satire from Young Jean Lee

High-octane: Cary Crankston, Alex Mugnaioni and Charlie CondouPamela Raith Photography

The Korean-American writer Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, currently enjoying its UK debut at Southwark Playhouse, is presented within a frame that cleverly and radically alters what’s inside it.

That would be a sparkly prologue provided by two Persons in Charge: cabaret performers of colour in glittery outfits and spiky headgear that references the Statue of Liberty and African tribal collars; one uses the pronouns he/his, the other she/her. They coquettishly reveal that all the other characters onstage will be straight white men, and each will stay in character for the whole play! Watch and learn “the rules of the game”, we are advised. Suddenly, a theatrical norm is being presented as unusual, even controversial. Handy-dandy.

Once the glitter twins and their hiphop party-tape have exited, we are squarely in the Midwest, in a typical brown man-cave with a leather sofa and family photos on the wall. Enter the first two white men, pulled in as if by invisible ropes and jerking like string puppets that slowly come to life. These are brothers Jake (Alex Mugnaioni) and Drew (Cary Crankston), visiting the family home for Christmas inhabited by their father Ed (Simon Rouse) and older brother Matt (Charlie Condou). Jake, a twice-divorced banker, is playing a videogame on an Xbox that turns out to be his Christmas present to his dad. We can see at once who the gift is really for and who Jake is.

He is not the only son with an aspirational lifestyle, we learn. Though much more liberal and less materialistic, Drew is on the up as a writer/teacher with a hit novel to his name, which is possibly as pretentious as the reviews it attracts, as savagely lampooned by Jake: Drew’s fraternal nickname is "shit baby". And even Matt has a stint at Harvard to his credit, though he has opted out for a quiet domestic life at home, making photocopies at a humanitarian organisation to try to pay off student loans. We realise that, in the absence of his now dead mother, he has effectively stepped into the traditional role of lady of the house, preparing meals, going grocery shopping and taking over as the family member with a conscience. Organising a film for the four to watch, he chooses A Man for All Seasons: not exactly, Jake notes, an action film, though of course it features as its protagonist a man of principle.

We see that these four men have long, strong ties that they typically express in set-pieces and joshing sessions that move down well-worn tracks. They perform laugh-out-loud dance routines and their own rewrite of Oklahoma!, where the characters are Klan members (“You know we belong to the Klan… You’re really white, Oklahoma, OK-K-K”). But these exhilarating moments are punctuated by age-old resentments and quibbles. 

These are not Trump-voting Midwesterners. Their outlook seems to have been formed by their late mother, who remodelled the family Monopoly set as a game called Privilege, to prevent them from becoming “assholes”. In her version, you pick up an Excuses card (“I wasn’t being homophobic when I said that, because I was joking”) or one from the Denial pack (“You are stopped by a cop just for being white: go to Goal”). Matt, it emerges, became a communist activist at one point. 

Then he bursts into tears mid-jollities. The others seek to help him, but can they? There is one trait the three of them share that separates them from Matt and can’t be dismissed: their belief that men need to man up, overcome their problems and learn to “play by the rules”. Should Matt be left to his choices, or saved from them? The men’s bonds end up tying them in ideological knots. Lee hits her satirical targets firmly on the nose, but she still leaves room for us to feel a degree of sympathy for her characters. With sympathy comes understanding, if not agreement or endorsement.

This is a nicely judged production from Steven Kunis, impressively choreographed by Christina Fulcher. The role of Jake was played on Broadway by Josh Charles (Will in The Good Wife), but I doubt he could have bettered Alex Mugnaioni, who brings an electrifying force to what’s already a high-octane ensemble. His Jake is cynical and worldly, but acutely smart and funny. Those Persons in Charge seem relatively tame and muted by comparison.

They perform laugh-out-loud dance routines punctuated by age-old resentments and quibbles

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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