Chicago Theatre Review
Making Matt Great Again
Straight White Men – Steppenwolf Theatre
A trio of educated, well-reared brothers gather together at the suburban home of their recently-widowed father for Christmas. These three male adult caucasian siblings fall into their old, familiar routines and revert back into adolescence again. They roughneck, smack each other around, swap crude insults and, basically, turn into modern-day primitives. Food flies through the air, the guys make disgusting noises and wrestle each other for supremacy. Eventually they get around to playing a board game called Privilege, a toy their mom created years ago from an old Monopoly set. This pastime becomes the epitome of the playwright’s comic drama.
Young Jean Lee’s acclaimed play, directed in Chicago by the author herself, has been seen Off Broadway and in productions all around the country. It explores what it means to be one of those self-entitled titular characters this play portrays. Jake is a powerful banker, Drew’s a successful author but Matt’s the sensitive brother who seems to be stuck in an unchallenging, menial job that doesn’t utilize his education or any of his skills. Matt, who suddenly and unexpectedly breaks down crying, feels adrift in life. He knows what’s expected of him, as a privileged white male, but he’s simply not living up to his potential, nor, it seems, does he want to. Matt has been merely sliding through existence, barely exerting himself and just getting by. When he’s confronted by Drew and his dad and, especially, when he’s skewered by Jake for underperforming, Matt has no answer. He knows he’s disappointed his family, as well as himself, but Matt’s in a comfortable rut and he simply can’t see a way out. This, the playwright seems to say, is the fate of so many men of the same social class. Matt’s brothers and father attempt to do what they can to make Matt great again, but it’s a futile cause.
Lee’s plays often explore themes of challenging one’s identity, wrestling with stereotypes and trying to straighten up the messes an individual makes of his life. Matt (played with a quiet intensity by Brian Slaten, in his impressive Steppenwolf debut) is a standout in the least showy role of the play, but he’s also the focal point of the production. Ryan Hallahan, also appearing on the Steppenwolf stage for the first time, is commanding as Drew, the more cerebral brother. As Jake, the flashier and most outspoken of the siblings, Madison Dirks is all pent up frustration and anger, but also the instigator of the brothers’ horseplay, as well as Matt’s intervention. Steppenwolf veteran Alan Wilder plays their father, Ed. He’s the least prominent of the four characters and the part, as written by Lee, feels like a supporting role. At first he defends his live-in son, who helps him cook and clean, but Jake and Drew eventually convince Ed to employ some tough love and evict Matt, so that he can fulfill his God-given potential.
The play is introduced by two characters, Elliott Jenetopulos and Will Wilhelm, two gender-unspecific actors, who represent the antithesis of this play’s title. They bop and dance around the audience, handing out earplugs to theatergoers who prefer to block out the loud pre-show music. The hard rock songs literally shake the theatre seats and peppers the air with lyrics that may be offensive to some patrons. The two enter the stage and position each of the actors, dressing them and providing them with what they need, at the top of each scene. It’s almost as if the straight white men are mannikins or props. Enver Chakartash’s costumes are appropriate, while his collection of plaid pajamas and cozy, fleece-lined moccasins are a highlight of the show. The linear tract house setting, featuring an entryway and den, is generic and devoid of much personality, as designed by David Evans Morris. The set’s realism will be familiar to anyone who knows suburban housing. Faye Driscoll’s spirited choreography also adds some unexpected moments of humor and joy to the production.
This latest offering by Steppenwolf is partly laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes resembling a broad sketch comedy, and partly a tense drama of confrontation. Most of the times Lee has kept a tight control over her players and her script, while the audience holds its collective breath, waiting for what will come next. In this fragmentary, realistic drama, real life is what happens next.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Febuary 11 -March 26 by the Steppenwolf Theatre in their Upstairs venue, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about Chicago area productions by visiting www.theareinchicago.com.