Straight, white and berserk12/16/2015
The set keeps things plain, but not the pajamas. Designer Tim Wisgerhof restrained himself, deliberately, for the interiors of “Straight White Men.” He worked as if from Sears-&-Roebuck, using mostly brown and beige. He put up artwork by Andrew Wyeth, who celebrated Americana. But midway through the first sequence (the play has no intermission, only three brief blackouts) the oldest, beefiest guy in the show comes on wearing a single-piece pajama, complete with footies. Against the bright green flannel, candy canes erupt like flares.
Credit for the costume goes to Kelley Marie Schaeffer. But the craziness, that’s on the playwright, Young Jean Lee. In a matter of minutes, she has the old man’s three sons — big men well into sloppy middle age — putting on those PJs. Next thing you know, all four of these green-and-red sacks of silliness sit squeezed in together on the sofa, using chopsticks to pick at takeout Chinese food. Rarely has Des Moines enjoyed such a berserk lineup.
And there’s more. The three brothers gathered for Christmas at Dad’s house turn the Broadway classic “Oklahoma” into a Ku Klux Klan anthem. Their childhood memories include horrors that would make a therapist rich. Their midnight dance number to a half-obscene Christmas rap must have Michael Jackson spinning in his grave. Those bits and others had me gasping with laughter — but I’m not sure the dramatic sum was equal to its outrageous parts.
Lee has always attacked American assumptions about race and privilege. She claims she seeks to “destroy the audience.” Mission accomplished, in the best of “Straight White Men.” During the script’s last third, though, the author strains for depth of character, for tragedy. That’s too far to go when the first two-thirds were mostly showing cartoons.
In particular, the final section calls for one of the brothers, Matt, to undergo a withering humiliation. For a long time, he’s reduced to speaking through sobs. The breakdown would never remain believable without someone like Shawn Wilson pushing his talent to fresh extremes. Throughout, he drops his face for some gloomy murmur — anticipating his tears at the end — and yet he also delivers uproarious full-body gags. You don’t want to miss Wilson’s two or three minutes as a cawing, ravenous auk, seizing his brother’s head. He’s the high-flyer in “Straight White Men,” and in more ways than one.
But then, even the “stagehand,” Travis Ness, African-American and flamboyantly femmy, contributes to the irony every time he sashays on. Eric Olson and Gabe Thompson, as Matt’s brothers, sling insults and attaboys in ways that reveal their personality — Thompson the fratboy and Olson the peacemaker — while Gary Roberts as Dad generates a goofy, welcoming warmth. Roberts retired from teaching a dozen years ago, yet this show requires him both to shake his booty and show up in those pajamas, and he handles it with aplomb. Talk about the season of rebirth.
Overheard in the Lobby: On Feb. 17, Iowa State University’s Stephens Theater will feature Kenan Thompson of Saturday Night Live. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.