A HUMAN ZOO OF ALPHA MEN
There are good plays to be written about white male privilege, and about modern capitalism and its relentless expectation of self-promotion and constant advancement at the expense of sanity and morality. There is also always room for more plays about adult siblings reverting to childhood resentments. This one, by Young Jean Lee – reportedly the first Asian-American woman to have had a play on Broadway – has a fair tilt at all the above, but it left me a bit frustrated.
There’s some banging rap music as we settle, and a nicely sly introduction by two nightclub-glitzy figures, of whom more later: they, not white at all, and in one case definitely a ‘her’ pronoun, are billed as “Person In Charge”, curating as a show or zoo the performance of the eponymous white men. This takes place in the Christmas-stockings, workaday home of widowed Ed (Simon Rouse) who has got his three sons round for the festive days. Well, Matt the eldest lives with him at the moment, very housewifely in his ways, and divorced banker Jake and youngest bro Drew have breezed in for the three days of Christmas. So far, so Ayckbournian – as the teasing persons-in-charge say, that format is the straight white male of theatre.
The young men’s relationship seems based heavily on extreme banter, teasing, wrestling and – though not for long enough, because it’s interesting – getting out an adapted family Monopoly set reorganised as Priviege-checking. . For they are all well schooled in white male privilege and its guilts by their late mother, and none of them really knows what to do about it. Matt (a performance of finely judged benignly depressed helplessness by Charlie Condou) actually says this in a late line – that he “doesn’t know what the answer is or whether there is an answer”.
He is living at home, doing volunteer work and part-time, saying he “just wants to be useful” and that it isn’t political. The pivot incident of the play (too much of which is taken up by the really annoying bro-banter of the others) is when Matt bursts into tears at a meal and the others don’t quite get why. But it leads to the point of the piece. Jake (a vigorous Alex Mugnaioni), is ashamed that in his company he knows he deliberately doesn’t bring on women or interns of colour to client meetings, even though his own kids by his estranged wife are mixed race. He praises Matt because he thinks his brother is being virtuous, doing the right thing, because he’s a white male getting out of the way to leave success to the less privileged.
Matt denies this and clearly is mainly depressed. His question “why do I have to have a career?’ Makes everyone annoyed, including Dad Ed who finds it “repugnant” that he doesnt want to make anything of himself. The idea that Matt might be a loser for no political or ethical reason enrages Jake. Which is interesting, but leads nowhere much.
The frustration for me was how little use was made of the nice device of book-ending it with the non-SWM characters. Kamari Romeo and Kim Tatum, both in nightclub gear, glittery-slinky-sexy, one Zambian-American one Polish-Jewish-African-American (I think I caught that). All very LGBTQ+++, gay-leatherwork-harness and, spikes in hair, much glitter: ineffably charming both of them. But they vanish after the start and appear at the end briefly, meanwhile only turning up once in a silent sequence where they fill a binbag with various things of no notable value, including a rainbow flag.
I really would like more of them: they could have popped in once or twice to take the mick out of these men, or at least roll their eyes a bit at some of the annoying bro-banter. They could have pointed out, for example, when the brothers start dancing (to banging rap of course,and a female vocalist) that it is pure cultural appropriation. As in any club night full of cool white kids, all the moves are shamelessly pinched off black street-dance.
It’s just one of the jokes – and we do need jokes around this subject- which the play doesn’t have enough fun with. Condou is a real treat, though, wish we saw more of him. And as with so many Southwark productions, worth it.
Southwarkplayhouse.co.uk To 4 Dec.