As Straight White Men begins, it's Christmastime, when artificial trees, gaudy decorations, and comforting bromides about universal peace and love are taken out of storage, dusted off, and briefly put on display.
To the surprise of no one who saw her regional premiere in Black Ops Theatre's production of The Shipment, confrontational playwright Young Jean Lee easily slices through the fatty layers of holiday schmaltz and sentimentality in this caustic 2014 drama, which is Sonorous Road Theatre's final production at its Oberlin Road space before it moves to Hillsborough Road in June.
Easy laughter spills forth as Ed (Simon Kaplan) and his three adult children—acerbic banker Jake (Sean Wellington), sensitive writer Drew (Nick Popio), and academic Matt (Brian Thacker)—reenact cheesy holiday rituals on Vivian Chiang's domestic set.
But Lee's real targets, which aren't Santa suits and Christmas-day pajamas, take a bit longer to comprehend. Slowly, she and guest director egla Birmingham Hassan probe the connective tissue that hold this family together. In doing so, they gradually uncover a set of conditions that qualify the supposedly unconditional love among siblings and patriarch.
In a sense, we can see it coming in the socialized aggression of Jake and Drew's early roughhousing. It's good-natured for the most part as they relitigate squabbles from an extended, possibly permanent adolescence, while their older, more mature brother, Matt, remains above the fray.
But matters grow a shade darker as the family reminiscences about a childhood in which Matt was a shockingly effective activist—high schoolers quoting Hegel, anyone?—and helped raise the other two to be acutely aware of their social privilege.
Things get darker still when we learn that Matt has had a mid-career crisis of faith. "I was teaching a bunch of people something I didn't know how to do, that they didn't want to learn," he admits, concluding that he's never figured out how to be a useful human.
The more Matt questions his profession and the necessity of careers in general, the more his overachieving kin seek to excuse his underperformance. Clinical depression is the cause, says one, while another asserts that Matt is practicing a strategic self-martyrdom so the underprivileged can rise instead.
Even the closest of groups set boundaries involving unacceptable behaviors and beliefs. Hassan draws nuanced work out of an ensemble that coheres as a convincing family—that is, before their own assumptions about what it means to be men threaten to tear them apart.