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REVIEW: 'Straight White Men' work through some baggage for the holidays in Riverside play

Brothers Jake (Aaron Weiner, left) and Matt (Kevin Michael Moore, right), squawk as loudly as they can to bug their brot
Brothers Jake (Aaron Weiner, left) and Matt (Kevin Michael Moore, right), squawk as loudly as they can to bug their brother Drew (Michael Francis) over the holidays in “Straight White Men.” The show runs through Dec. 15 at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City. (Rob Merritt)

IOWA CITY — It’s not a wonderful life for the brothers in “Straight White Men,” onstage through Dec. 15 at Riverside Theatre.

Jake (Aaron Weiner), Matt (Kevin Michael Moore) and Drew (Michael Francis) have brought all their baggage home for the holidays, dumping it at the feet of their widowed father, Ed (Kevin Burford).

Before too long, we find out Matt actually lives with his father, a retired engineer. All of the men have or have had promising careers. Jake is a recently divorced banker with two biracial children (a fact that comes into play); Drew is a successful writer; and Matt has a Harvard degree he isn’t putting to use.

With the way these three grown men behave, it’s a miracle they have made it to adulthood without killing each other, and it’s even more amazing any of them have good jobs. I have three brothers, and it’s safe to say if any of them behaved the way these brothers do, they would have been out on their ear before reaching high school.

To say that these brothers treat each other horribly is an understatement. However, these three actors embrace their characters with professional zeal.

Before the show even starts, audience members are treated to high-intensity thumping from an R-rated hip-hop soundtrack that announces with no mistaking, that this show is for mature audiences only.

A plastic curtain covered with graffiti is draped across a false proscenium to further heighten the edgy preshow vibe. Then the two People in Charge (Diviin Huff and Jaime Nevins), dressed in elegant black tuxedos, take the stage to explain their gender identities and acknowledge that “the preshow music might have made some of you uncomfortable.” Actually, many heads were bobbing to the beat before Sunday’s (12/1) matinee.

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The People in Charge then explained how they have had to adapt according to their life situations. Their candor is courageous and powerful.

Next, they open the curtains to a very vanilla family room, where everything is painted in shades of beige. The People in Charge then bring two actors onstage and pose them as if they’re Ken dolls — a very effective technique repeated between scenes in the 90-minute show, played without an intermission.

And then the uncomfortable part truly kicks in, as the brothers mock each other relentlessly and engage in physical horseplay that might have been found on a playground or in a game of dodgeball years ago. It’s all so mean-spirited, as if the Ghosts of Christmas Past have invaded Christmas Present and threaten Christmas Future. If that were my family home, I’d never go back there. Ever.

Much of the conflict arises over the way their parents tried to raise them to step outside of their middle-class white privilege to make the world a better place. But as the dialogue unfolds, it’s evident those plans have backfired for everyone in the increasingly stifling room. And when Drew and Jake try to “fix” Matt, the situation goes from bad to worse.

I was hoping playwright Young Jean Lee was aiming for deep satire, but she is quoted as saying: “‘Straight White Men’ isn’t about privilege or attempting to reveal anything new about it or solve it. I was more curious about the question, ‘If I woke up tomorrow and I was a straight white man, what would I do?’”

Hopefully, not what these guys do.

Get Out!

• What: “Straight White Men”

• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

• When: To Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $10 to $30; Riverside Box Office, (319) 338-7672, email boxoffice@riversidetheatre.org

• Extras: Talkbacks following Dec. 7 and 13 performances

• Details: Riversidetheatre.org

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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