When a banker figure named Jake explains his abrasive, even abusive personality near the end of Young Jean Lee’s explosively entertaining “Straight White Men” at Studio Theatre, the post-election queries still hanging in the air give his self-analysis a riveting new edge. Lee’s play appeared in New York two years ago, but Studio could not have coordinated its Washington arrival any better by opening it this week.
If the title suggests a raw parody of America’s long-dominant demographic, think again. Lee’s play is hilarious, depicting the three grown brothers and their father gathered for Christmas as happy roughnecks pummeling each other and swapping crude insults. (Call it locker-room talk.) And the performances in Shana Cooper’s expert 85-minute production riotously skewer the siblings’ primitive habits as food flies and the boys race through the den and make terrible sounds, demeaning each other and jostling among themselves for supremacy.
But the play is also stone-cold sober once Matt, a conscience-riddled brother at loose ends, inexplicably cries. He works as a temp for a liberal advocacy group; Jake and his dad fret that he’s underperforming. Their project is to make Matt great again.
Lee’s ongoing dramatic project is identity, and her sly, often difficult works, such as “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” and “The Shipment,” have placed her at the forefront of playwrights wrestling with stereotypes. By Lee’s standard, “Straight White Men” is fairly straightforward — though she frames her play with a stagehand who plainly is not a straight white male, played here by Jeymee Semiti. Setting the stage and cuing the action, Semiti shoots perplexed looks at the macho gang and the messes they make.
That’s part of what agonizes Matt, played by Michael Tisdale as an appealing and increasingly anguished wonk. It was Matt’s idea to protest an all-white production of “Oklahoma!” by writing a sendup with Klansmen and hoods, putting a wicked “KKK” in the musical’s title song. His brother Drew is positioned somewhere between Matt’s sensitivity and Jake’s hard pragmatism; Drew writes political novels and defends Matt against Jake’s particularly sharp prosecution.
It’s hard to imagine that the high-spirited shenanigans could be judged any better by Cooper and her cast. Avery Clark brings such a superb rumpled swagger to Drew that the phrase “comfortable in his own skin” comes to mind. Bruch Reed is similarly relaxed as Jake. The gamesmanship seems to come easily, whether they’re jabbing each other with words or slamming each other into the couch. Michael Winters hits the right notes, too, as the fatherly Ed, telling the lads to settle down but also powerfully driving home critiques as the focus turns to hapless Matt.
Andrew Boyce’s set is a den that demonstrates absolutely no demonstrable taste on Ed’s part; his walls, ceiling and rug are a grubby white, and the most distinguishing element in the decor is a tacky golf throw pillow. The room is a kind of cave, and the dialogue is often literally reduced to grunts. Just watching these men eating a pie together is laugh-out-loud funny, and yes, parts of this play seem almost as broad as sketch comedy.
But all of it feels superbly controlled. The punchlines never whiff, and when Lee bears down on the roles that these guys can and cannot perform in society, you hold your breath and lean in. The attitudes and anxieties on display in “Straight White Men” have arrived downtown right on time.
Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee. Directed by Shana Cooper. Costumes, Helen Huang; lights, Jiyoun Chang; sound design, Kenny Neal. About 85 minutes. Through Dec. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $52-$97, subject to change. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.