The Men Zoo

Many a Miller, Mamet, Beckett or Pinter suffer from it, as do countless of other modern plays showing right now on Broadway and the Westend. Lack of (gender) diversity. Whatever their titles, they might as well have been called ‘heterosexual men talk about life’. Though this is being addressed in modern day theatre in many ways, theatre maker Young Jean Lee also puts her finger on the problem with her latest production. ‘Straight White Men (SWM)’ is exactly that, a play about heterosexual men talking about life. And then some.

On the surface this play is just like other plays in the genre, a straightforward (excuse the pun) family drama. SWM follows an easy enough plot. Father Ed and his three adult sons come together to celebrate Christmas. Among festive cheer, catching up, rough and tumble and a lot of food and booze they realise one of the four isn’t as happy as he purports. The play then takes a turn as the family faces a discussion about identity, privilege and ‘the value of being a straight white man’.

Building up tension throughout the piece, the drama comes to a head when the sons and the father confront Matt with some of his ‘white guilt’. All four men have chosen different paths in life and all think they know how to best cheer up Matt. Their advice however is scrutinised by Lee’s cunning dialogue and staging. It doesn’t always sound as advice, as much as excuses for living the way they do. With this play then, Lee explores what straight white men with good educations and loving families do with the knowledge their lives are basically very fortunate ones.

Inside this exploration Lee brings a few different things to the fore. First is that theatre is basically no more than a black box with people in it. Audiences get a two hour slice of real life, presented with differing levels of realism depending on the show. SWM though is almost hyper realistic. It feels much more like a living diorama than a play as the set and the acting are both frustratingly realistic. However, Lee also proves that nothing is ever easy, and that family drama cannot be resolved in two hours. The questions Matt has about life, love, family, future are left up in the air and none of the brothers nor the father really has the answer. This way SWM leaves the audience with a rather pessimistic feeling on leaving the theatre. Perhaps an introspective glance is in order, are we all Straight White Men and do we use bad excuses to rationalise our privilege? Are we aware of our good fortune? Maybe all we can do is wait till Christmas and have our own little family dramas to find out.

Seen on 17-10 at Kaaitheater

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I'm a Dutch writer/poet/walnut eater living in Brussels. I enjoy theatre. Playing, writing, watching, reviewing it. I have no children, no dogs but I do have a set of dead cactuses.

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