From left: Stephen Payne vies for a seat on the couch with Josh Charles, Armie Hammer and Paul Schneider. In the play, the three brothers use physical comedy to connect
Joan Marcus
July 26, 2018 7:10 AM EDT

Straight White Men is distinguished by several notable firsts. It’s the first Broadway play written by an Asian-American woman. (What took so long?) It’s heartthrob Armie Hammer’s Broadway debut. (More please.) And it likely marks the first appearance on Broadway of the adolescent male form of play-fighting known as the Titty Twister, which is exactly what it sounds like. (It hurts.)

Young Jean Lee’s play is a thought-provoking exploration of the privileges enjoyed by straight white males. It’s also a giddy physical romp that’s a perfect vehicle for Armie Hammer, who onstage and off radiates a catlike comfort in his long, lean athlete’s body. During a recent interview with fellow cast members, he casually slipped off a couch onto the floor, where he stretched out on his back and did a few quick curls before effortlessly slithering back onto the couch. (It appeared as if he were trying to release his lower back.) Throughout the interview, the actors were as physical and playful with one another as they are onstage.

The play takes place over Christmas as three adult brothers reunite at home to spend the holiday with their widowed father. The brothers are each wrestling with their own demons and, to avoid confronting them directly, spend much of their time together reverting to childhood “tomfoolery,” as Hammer puts it.

The action opens with middle brother Jake (Josh Charles) intently playing a video game while younger brother Drew (Hammer) torments him with a highly annoying song. Jake studiously ignores Drew, and so Drew’s efforts to disrupt him grow ever more intrusive, culminating in a tussle, which provokes Jake to deliver the aforementioned Titty Twister. It gets the play off to a rollicking start.

The eldest brother, Matt (played by the excellent Paul Schneider) is in crisis. The smartest and most promising of the clan, he is living at home, doing temp work. His refusal to take advantage of the privileges bestowed upon him, which include a Harvard education, is maddening to his siblings. “Why is there an insistence to maximize every advantage we have to the best of our ability?” Schneider said in an interview.

In a way, the world has caught up to the play, which first ran in New York City in 2014 at the Public Theater. Playwright Lee says that when the show premiered, most audience members had “zero idea” what it was about. “They were totally baffled by it,” she says. At the time, many had never heard the term privilege used in reference to race or gender or sexuality. Says Lee: “Now people are much more conversant with these terms and better able to follow and understand the play.”

This appears in the August 06, 2018 issue of TIME.

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