Whip Hubley, Jake Cote, Joe Bearor and Nick Schroeder in “Straight White Men” at Mad Horse. Photo by Noli French, French’s Fotos

The Mad Horse Theatre Company returns to satirical territory with “Straight White Men,” a play that matches offbeat theatrics with critical perspectives in the service of attempting to raise some challenging questions.

With its seriousness wrapped up in a good deal of comedy, author Young Jean Lee’s 2018 play has become known as an intriguing, if sometimes exasperating, show. At the opening Mad Horse performance, the laughs mostly outweighed any confusion created. But questions remained.

The complications began early when, after a period of salty hip-hop music, two characters (Maya Williams and Sabrina Gallego) referred to as Persons in Charge proudly introduced themselves by their gender identifications and then launched a few zingers at the audience to establish the subversive undercurrent within the play.
The pair then proceeded to verbally frame a holiday gathering set in a comfortable family room, later going on to act as stagehands, moving temporarily frozen actors around, like props, between scenes.

The result of all that was to set up a sort of clinical observation of the interactions between a widowed father and his three adult sons as they affectionately fuss, fight and commiserate at Christmastime. Along the way, members of the foursome, in an apparent family tradition, begin to raise issues of social privilege, status, identity and personal fulfillment.

Theater and film veteran Whip Hubley returns to the intimate Mad Horse performance space as Ed, the supportive dad who has soldiered on after the loss of the boys’ mom, who appears to have been highly influential in guiding the family’s sensibilities. As Ed’s sons: Joe Bearor plays Jake, a successful banker, and Jake Cote plays Drew, a progressive-minded teacher/writer. Nick Schroeder takes the role of Matt, the Harvard-educated but underachieving oldest sibling who lives with Ed.

The play gives the four of them time to humorously establish a familial warmth, though there’s something a little awkward about all that wrestling and dancing. Jake, Drew and Ed claim to be mostly comfortable with who they are. But things eventually get testy around the question of Matt’s seeming lack of ambition. What sort of guidance does a man of his potential need to get going? Is Matt really “repugnant” and a “loser” or are the others blind to their own faults?

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Director Joshua N. Hsu keeps the action playful but increasingly poignant, filling the stage with movement and music as the characters within the able cast evince a loving, if volatile, chemistry.

Bearor, a newcomer to the Mad Horse company, was particularly effective as the mercurial Jake, expressing his character’s anger in several striking outbursts. Cote’s Drew, ever leaning toward the comical, conveyed a more reasonable approach, suggesting for Matt the sort of therapy that he himself has had in the past.

Hubley’s dad engagingly championed a kind of conformity that still appeals but that the play wants to make clear is outdated. Schroeder’s Matt touchingly sits befuddled, claiming he’s fine.

Would his mom have had a solution to Matt’s situation? If not, it’s likely the Persons in Charge have some ideas about what comes next in this unusual show.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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