Arts & Culture

‘Straight White Men’ takes on social issues with warmth, humor

Brian Thacker as Matt, Nick Popio as Drew, Sean Wellington as Jake, and Simon Kaplan as Ed in Sonorous Road Theatre’s production of “Straight White Men” by Young Jean Lee.
Brian Thacker as Matt, Nick Popio as Drew, Sean Wellington as Jake, and Simon Kaplan as Ed in Sonorous Road Theatre’s production of “Straight White Men” by Young Jean Lee. Sonorous Road Theatre

The title of Young Jean Lee’s latest work, “Straight White Men,” provocatively announces it’s about race, gender and privilege. That it’s so warmly funny, while quietly laying out huge social issues, makes it one of her most accessible pieces, especially in Sonorous Road Theatre’s excellent staging.

The first half-hour of the 75-minute one-act seems squarely in sitcom territory. Two fortyish brothers, Jake, a successful banker, and Drew, a successful novelist, arrive to celebrate Christmas with their widower father, Ed, and Matt, their older brother. Matt’s living at home with Ed while sorting out his life.

The brothers engage in frat boy-style teasing and roughhousing while reminiscing about past times and happily upholding holiday rituals of food, drink and games. When talk comes around to what everyone is up to, Jake and Drew voice concern about Matt, the Harvard graduate, who’s currently working only a temp job. Ed sheepishly defends Matt, stating he’ll soon be on to something better.

Then, in the middle of Chinese take-out on Christmas Eve, Matt suddenly bursts into uncontrollable sobs. Next morning, despite Matt’s protests that he’s OK, the others badger him about doing something better for himself. Their reasoning exposes not only the automatic power that white straight men have but also how entrenched it is, even with the most enlightened members of that group.

Director egla Birmingham-Hassan’s sure hand keeps the pacing tight, the humor zingy and, most impressively, the family camaraderie real.

Sean Wellington’s Jake is one of his best portrayals: cocky and confident, yet also loving and self-aware. Nick Popio gives Drew a likeable but relentless assurance that he has life figured out (after therapy) if everyone would just heed his advice. As Ed, Simon Kaplan is a generous, supportive dad who has troubling blind spots with Matt, whom Brian Thacker plays with quiet but moving understanding and emotion.

As usual, Lee includes some purposely odd, uncomfortable moments, here stuck on at the outset, with extremely loud music and a mini-lecture by two gender non-conforming hosts, who also position the actors for each scene.

Despite this awkward beginning, the script and production do what theater does best: entertains while proffering much to ponder.

Details

What: “Straight White Men”

Where: Sonorous Road Theatre, 209 Oberlin Road, Raleigh

When: 8 p.m. May 19-20, 22, 25-27; 3 p.m. May 21, 28

Tickets: $18 (students/seniors $15)

Info: 919-803-3798 or sonorousroad.com

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