'Straight White Men' Wants to Shake You Up; 'Peerless' Actually Does

What's race got to do with it? Quite a bit, two new plays tell us.
| Updated: January 24, 2018
Corinne Magin as M and Maile Wong as L in 'Peerless' at ArtsWest.

What’s the opposite of a trigger warning? Straight White Men could have one on the cover of its program: CAUTION: Faintly sensitive topics handled extremely gingerly.

In Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee’s one-act play, three brothers and their father gather (in scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl’s pitch-perfect rec-room set) over Christmas to banter, bicker, reminisce, horse around, share wonderfully dorky inside jokes and indulge in a great deal of dancing-like-no-one’s-watching. Whole production numbers, in fact. Imagine a Venn diagram with three circles labeled Actual White Guys, Parodies of White Guys and Parodies of People’s Stereotypes of White Guys; Lee’s portrayals of the four men—Matt, Jake, Drew and father Ed, played by Washington Ensemble Theatre’s Frank Boyd, Andy Buffelen, Sam Turner and David S. Klein, respectively—lie somewhere in the central overlap. 

Lee does have a prodigious imagination for coming up with out-of-left-field character traits; Ed, for example, is obsessed with puffins. Eventually it transpires, after a lot of tomfoolery, that Matt’s slackerism is becoming an early midlife crisis. The cause is diagnosed as white male guilt, and a discussion of the concept ensues—a salutary one, in which Jake, among other accusations and revelations, gets candid about his employers’ hideous treatment of women and minorities, from which he admits he’s benefited. The framing device for the whole thing is two people of color, Person in Charge 1 and Person in Charge 2 (WET’s Nina Williams-Teramachi and Nicholas Japaul Bernard), one a trans person, the other a flamboyant gender-bender, who act as stagehands and commenters.

For addressing issues that theater ought to address, Straight White Men gets an A, though its self-consciousness does distance it a fair amount. You get the feeling that the show thinks it’s more incendiary than it really is, especially in the context of the Seattle arts world; it’s impossible to imagine any Capitol Hill theatergoer being truly shaken up by it. Or anyone to the left of Mike Pence, for that matter. 

Sara Porkalob directed not only this show, but the concurrent Peerless at ArtsWest. (And, unbelievably, she’s also preparing to star in Dragon Baby, the next chapter in her ongoing one-woman stage memoir, running Jan. 31–Feb. 3 at 18th & Union.) Peerless is sharper, funnier, more wicked and considerably more discomfiting; comedy can’t get much blacker. New York-based playwright Jiehae Park borrowed Macbeth’s examination of the ruthless hunger for power, and its aura of the supernatural, to send up Asian-American academic ambition, with the coveted prize admission to an exclusive college rather than a Scottish kingdom.

The result, especially with this cast, is stunning. Corinne Magin plays M, icy or ingratiating, demure or psychotic, depending on who else is within earshot; her Lady Macbeth is her twin sister L, played by Maile Wong—chirpier and perkier, but (or perhaps therefore) a straight-up sociopath. They play brilliantly off each other, mirror images and clashing opposites. (The opening exposition, a nimble spoken duet with fragments of backstory ricocheting between them, aches to be set to music.) Erin Bednarz, whose character is known only as Dirty Girl—she’s something like pre-makeover Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, squared—is the stand-in for the witches; Jonathan Keyes is M’s black boyfriend, dubbed BF; and Christopher Quilici plays the main roadblock to M’s future. He is breathtaking. Hyperbole engenders skepticism, so it might be counterproductive to tell you that his is one of the most fearless, compelling and bravura performances I’ve ever seen on a Seattle stage, but I will anyway. Park has no qualms about pushing emotional buttons, and Quilici is right there at every step to make the absolute most of them, with a combination of controlled surface pathos over a nuclear-fission core of energy that will put you in mind of, say, the edgy commitment of Chris Farley, or even Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Nor does Park mind pushing racial buttons, and every un-PC line brings a bracing sting: “There aren’t any historically Asian colleges that I can apply to,” M does not hesitate to tell BF. Though you’ll guess what will happen, you won’t guess how, and the manifold shocks—both the twists of the plot and the provocation of the subject matter—are exhilarating.

Straight White Men. 12th Ave. Arts, Capitol Hill, 1620 12th Ave.; 206-325-5015; washingtonensemble.org. $15–$25. Extended through Feb 2.

Peerless. ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, West Seattle, 4711 California Ave. SW; 206.938.0963; artswest.org. $17–$38. Ends Feb. 11.

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