at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Two men in a room–a premise whose very familiarity can prove as daunting to a writer as its dramatic potential is promising. In Mirror, Mirror–the longer second half of a pair of one-acts collectively titled Brand New Shoes–local playwright Zoe Goldberg uses this tried-and-true situation to examine the problems men can have staying emotionally afloat in a world full of pressures to compete and conform, to measure up and make it.

Though a bit too long and somewhat uneven in its pacing, Goldberg’s script has two major things to recommend it. It treats its theme with genuine compassion and integrity (though it suffers from a lack of imaginativeness), and it offers terrific performance opportunities to its two actors.

Willy is spending his 25th birthday alone in a hospital–a mental hospital–when his older brother Victor pays a surprise visit. The effect on Willy is electric; the admiration he feels for his slick older brother is enormous. But the brothers’ relationship has always been lopsided–Victor chafes at the responsibility he has had to take for Willy–and the gulf of misunderstanding is widened by Victor’s obvious discomfort at spending time with his institutionalized brother.

But as the two confront their lack of communication, they discover they are more alike than they had realized. What they share is weakness, not strength; Victor, now a successful architect, is perilously close to landing up in the same state as Willy, a rising ad executive whose career was stopped by a mental breakdown. The things that bug the two men are both general–fear of emotional expression, unhealthy assumptions about masculinity, sibling rivalry–and specific: conflicted feelings about their parents. Their father, now dead, was a failure at business, something that has long tormented Victor. It is up to Willy to show Victor that “failure” can bring peace. Meanwhile, their emotional lives are dominated by their “screeching, nagging” shrew of a mother; though never seen, she makes her presence felt throughout the play in the form of a gift-wrapped box that Willy regards with dread.

Willy and Victor’s conversation reveals that though one is “healthy” and the other sick, one a success and one a failure. one a hero and the other a burden, they are really mirror images of each other. (The mirror metaphor is reinforced effectively in a scene in which the two regard themselves in Willy’s full-length mirror, comparing Victor’s “power politics” new suit to the hand-me-downs Willy wears.) Goldberg’s script ultimately takes a course that is logically unlikely yet too predictable to be convincing absurdism; but her dialogue is filled with strong, concrete, affecting images in the men’s descriptions of their loved-hated mother and their reminiscences of growing up.

Josette DiCarlo has directed Mirror, Mirror with a strong feel for precise, revealing emotional moments. Her cast work together superbly, starting with their perfectly mismatched physical appearances: short, blond Rod Armentrout plays Willy with intense, excitable energy against tall, dark Bruce Barsanti’s mature, superficially confident Victor. Barsanti works from within to strip away his character’s wall of resistance subtly and convincingly; his flashback to a baseball game in which he coached Willy to a humiliating defeat in front of their father is quite moving.

The thematically unrelated curtain raiser of the evening is God’s Spies, by Don Nigro, a short, shallow, and sophomoric skit satirizing commercialized religious fervor. A “Christian Youth Club” TV show host interviews a crazed fundamentalist obsessed with satanism on rock records and a young woman who thought she saw God in a church belfry–it turned out to be a drunken preacher trying to rape her.

As a potentially timely lampoon of how the televangelist industry hypes the wages of sin in order to pry donations from a gullible public, God’s Spies fritters away nearly all its opportunities in lame jokes (one of the fundie’s most feared rock records is Dr. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cult Band) and knee-jerk redneck-baiting; it never comes to grips with the real scandal of the religious right’s money-grubbing and fear-mongering. As the deluded but saintly young woman guest, the always watchable and creative Celeste Januszewski rises far above the occasion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Sinkus.