The first thing you should know about “Straight White Men,” the Second Stage presentation of the play by Young Jean Lee, is that you should arrive a few minutes before starting time, or if earlier, relax in the downstairs lobby. That way you can avoid the obnoxiously booming hip-hop music that attacks the eardrums from the moment seating begins. The musical assault is tenuously related to the play at the start in apologetic introductions by transgender Kate Bornstein, who describes herself as a gender theorist from the New Jersey shore and Ty Defoe, who self-identifies as a two-spirit Native American. They also have the duty of leading characters into positions at the start of scenes, a gambit that comes across as a useless and pretentious effort to frame the story that unfolds.
That arresting and provocative story, set in a Midwest home, winds up being very upsetting despite big doses of laughter. It involves a father and three sons gathered on Christmas Eve in the family home and continues over a two-day period. We first meet brothers Jake (Josh Charles) and Drew (Armie Hammer) as they engage in amusing rough play as overgrown kids, following the sort of routines remembered from their boyhood. Such antics are repeated at intervals, and while funny at first, they become a bit much.
Jake and Drew are visiting the home occupied by their widowed dad (Stephen Payne). Their brother, Matt (Paul Schneider) has moved in with dad for an indefinite stay. As the play develops, the interactions build to serious, deeply upsetting confrontations, especially with regard to Matt.
Jake, a banker, and Drew, a writer and teacher, are pursuing careers that rest on their lives of white privilege (hence the play’s title). This is illustrated when they dig out and play an amusing board game called “Privilege.” They are presumably models of success, although when things get heated, Drew remarks that he was once suicidal. The brothers, especially Jake, become furious with Matt for his total lack of ambition despite his excellent education. He is content to do menial work at a community organization and is paying off his crunching student loan, even refusing his father’s offer of a check to take care of the debt. At one moment Matt breaks down and cries, which upsets his brothers and dad more than it does him, and leads to suggestions that he seek psychiatric care.
The situation reaches absurdity when Matt is goaded into a make-believe job interview with his father to show how he should behave to achieve advancement. His sheepishness is very funny, but defines his apparent contentment with being simply who he is, resisting pressure to do otherwise. What subsequently happens leads us to feel sorry for Matt and wonder what will happen to him.
The actors are all very convincing in their characterizations. Thus the play becomes riveting despite its contrivances and unanswered questions. There is ample fuel for post-play thoughts and discussions, slickly engendered by the author’s writing. The production has been superbly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, despite the superfluous introductions. The set design by Todd Rosenthal works efficiently. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.