Starting the summer season with a play set at Christmastime compels audiences to immediately shift gears to get into “Straight White Men,” which runs through June 24 at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (WHAT).
It's WHAT’s first performance back on the Julie Harris stage since 2019, and the staffers are as pumped as little kids on Christmas Eve. “It’s great to have energy back in the building again,” said Lighting Designer Christopher Ostrom. “It’s both exhilarating and scary.”
The New York Times calls the play – written and produced by Young Jean Lee and directed by Sasha Brätt – “a compassionate and stimulating exploration of one man’s existential crisis.” It was produced by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company and is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc. of New York.
Mark Hofmaier plays the dad, whose wife is deceased. Portraying his three grown sons, home on a holiday visit, are Andy McCain (Jake), Carl Howell (Drew), and Mike Mihm (Matt).
A politically charged, evocative title; a bold introductory soundtrack; and two ushers/narrators/aka “persons in charge” cast members dressed head-to-toe in silver vinyl foreshadow clash or confrontation.
Yet the story is a tender-albeit-antagonizing family drama whose subtext explores race, economic privilege, self-awareness and maximizing one’s own potential.
The relationship between the three brothers reveals itself through their easy rapport as they visit with their father. They constantly spar throughout decorating the Christmas tree, making holiday toasts, and eating their Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese take-out and pie.
While punctuated by lots of “guy” humor, these scenes carry a serious undercurrent: Matt’s ongoing depression. Educated at Harvard, Matt is working a dead-end job and living at home with his father.
When Matt inexplicably bursts into tears during dinner, Drew concludes that Matt suffers from low self-esteem and needs therapy. He offers to pay for the therapy. Dad offers to pay off Matt’s student loans.
“With your education and experience, why haven’t you done anything meaningful?” Drew asks Matt. “Can’t you see what it’s doing to us to see you like this?”
“I just want to be useful,” says Matt, who sets the table, fetches dinner and vacuums the living room.
Then comes a Monopoly-like board game of Privilege, which Ed calls one of their late mother’s craftiest inventions. According to the brothers, their mother designed the game of Privilege as “a way to have fun by not having fun” and “to learn how notto be an asshole.”
Summarizing the game’s major premise, Jake says, “It’s a world of pigs, and if you’re not a pig, you’re f***ed.”
Ultimately Jake accuses Matt of being a loser for no reason, and dad agrees that Matt should be doing more with his life than cooking and cleaning.
“Nobody has the answers,” Matt maintains.
Perhaps the moral of the story is: No excuses, white guys! Get off your ass and make this world a better place.
Whether it was a rather uncomfortable ending or lack of an intermission bathroom break that prompted the audience to bolt from the 90-minute performance is up to viewers to decide. The show runs through June 24.
“Straight White Men”
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre
Through June 24; mask and proof of vaccination required.
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428. WHAT.org