RETURNING TO TYPE
“I thought, Not only will I get to push myself,” Hammer says, “but I’ll also get to be part of something that really has something to say.” Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick.(SET DESIGN, JORIN OSTROSKA.)
ARMIE HAMMER IS A STRAIGHT WHITE MAN who made a name for himself playing such big-screen paragons of straight white manhood as The Social Network’s Winklevoss twins and the Lone Ranger. He went on, of course, to grow as an actor and cement his stardom playing a non-straight white man, opposite Timothée Chalamet, in last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Now he’s returning to type—and making his Broadway debut—in Young Jean Lee’s hilarious, scathing, and mournful play Straight White Men, which opens this month under the auspices of Second Stage at the Hayes Theater. Hammer trained as a theatrical actor but never pursued a career on the stage—so why now?
“The easy answer is that it scared me,” he says. “I’ve come to realize that the point of life is not to be comfortable—you should be in some sort of discomfort and pain at any given moment because that’s the only way to grow, as an actor and as a person. Plus, the play is so brilliant and prescient and timely—it deals so well with the concepts of toxic masculinity and white privilege, which we’re finally reckoning with as a society. And I thought, Not only will I get to push myself and do a play on Broadway but I’ll also get to be part of something that really has something to say.”
A theatrical shape-shifter with impeccable downtown credentials, Lee is making her own Broadway debut as a playwright—the first Asian American woman, straight or otherwise, to do so. For the last decade and a half she has been writing and staging works that are bold, experimental, spiky, genre-bending, and, above all, wildly imaginative and entertaining. Mainstream she ain’t—her plays have taken on Korean American identity politics (Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven), female identity politics (Untitled Feminist Show), and black identity politics (The Shipment), along with the patriarchy (Lear) and mortality (We’re Gonna Die)—but with Straight White Men she has written a conventionally plot-driven work that bubbles with the subversive wit and intellectual provocation that have become her trademark.
“To me, the naturalistic three-act play feels like the straight white male of theatrical forms,” she says. “I noticed that straight white maleness, which used to be the default, seemed to have become a label. And I noticed straight white men adapting to suddenly having to take on this label, the way marginalized people have had labels applied to them forever. And then I realized that I could make an identity-politics show about that—it seemed like a really difficult challenge.”
Lee, who grew up in Washington state, started her career in academia but four years into her Berkeley doctoral dissertation realized she was miserable and blurted out to her therapist that she wanted to be a playwright. “I was superembarrassed that I had told her that,” she recalls. “If you’re an academic studying Shakespeare and you say you want to be a playwright, it’s like being a veterinarian and saying that you would like to be a dog.”
Lee directed Straight White Men herself in a 2014 incarnation at the Public Theater and a few years later at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. This time around, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro, will be at the helm. Shapiro established herself as a peerless director of ensemble casts—and won a Tony Award—with Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, and she has gone on to earn a reputation for turning movie stars into stage actors, eliciting first-rate performances from the likes of Michael Cera in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth and James Franco in Of Mice and Men.
Satirical and ultimately compassionate, the play centers on the widowed Ed (Tom Skerritt) and his three adult sons, home for the holidays. Though they engage in plenty of guys-will-beguys behavior—video gaming, crude teasing, eating Chinese food from the carton—these aren’t, in fact, stereotypical straight white men. They grew up playing their own version of Monopoly, called Privilege, designed by their mother to teach them “how not to be assholes” (the game involves drawing cards labeled Denial and Excuses, such as “What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center”). The two younger brothers have each found their way—both in life and around the dilemma of their privilege: Drew (Hammer) is a college professor and novelist who writes about social justice, and Jake (Josh Charles) is a banker who unapologetically accepts that he’s a “dickhead.” But Matt (Paul Schneider), the oldest brother and the one with the most promise (he went to Harvard), lives at home with his father and works as a temp, depressed and unwilling to find a career more in keeping with his abilities—and his family turns on him.
“You start out thinking that Drew is the most liberal and understanding of his brother’s situation—compassionate and trying to help,” Hammer says. “But then you realize he’s only trying to help because he just doesn’t understand what happened to this shining example of white manhood, and it scares him. It becomes a kind of existential thing, like, Matt had the best shot, and if it didn’t work for him, what the fuck is this all about? Oh, my God, it has to work for him so that it will also work for me.”
Hammer says that he felt an immediate affinity for the play after taking the role of a gay man who feels compelled to appear straight in Call Me by Your Name, which he describes as a “transformative” and “liberating” experience. “A lot of my research for the film lent itself to this from the opposite side, looking at a man who’s pressured by his family to be something that he doesn’t necessarily feel that he is,” he says. “The question is how many straight white men feel that that’s their existence—not just in terms of sexuality but in terms of the concept of the job hunt or the dating game or xenophobia or racism.”
Continuing to explore the themes of race and privilege, Hammer also has a new film out this month, Sorry to Bother You, in which he plays the boss of an African American telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield, page 52) who gets ahead by using his “white voice.” But for now, Hammer is focused on the character he’s about to play onstage, in whom, he confesses, he recognizes aspects of himself. “Like Drew, I’ve always been, like, ‘I’m a fairly liberal guy, I’m progressive, I work in the arts, and blah blah blah.’ But do I still suffer from those same blindnesses? Am I still less evolved than I like to think I am? Am I Drew? It’s going to be amazing to delve into this character and just see what happens.” ■