The Boys Room
The Boys Room Credit: Liz Lauren

The Boys Room Victory Gardens Theater

Do the Hustle Writers’ Theatre

My parents didn’t know from divorce. For them and most of their Depression-bred peers, the only honorable way a father could exit his family was by working himself to death. No matter how frantic with misery a husband and wife might be, they were expected to hold tight to a conjugal version of the sentiment expressed by gangster Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

Need I say things are different now? The middle-aged man who can’t manage to stay married like his parents did has become a trope of American arts and letters—shorthand for stunted manhood, prolonged childhood, the failure of a generation, end of a tradition, death of a culture, you name it.

In The Boys Room, a comedy receiving its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, playwright Joel Drake Johnson offers up not one but two such losers. And they’re brothers.

Tim is a casualty of the Great Recession—his wife divorced him after he lost his job. That may make her sound like a monster, but a few minutes with him suggests that she may’ve chosen compassionately not to kill him outright. Staying with his widowed mom, sleeping on an old twin bed in the room he had as a kid, Tim’s got Sisyphean pluck enough to maintain his search for work during the day. (With his briefcase, he resembles the Michael Douglas character—a jobless, divorced dad who snaps—in Falling Down.) But he’s a basket case at night. As the mom, Susan, notes—and he freely acknowledges—Tim’s evenings are all about crying into his pillow and rooting around among his childhood possessions like a “rat in the wall.”

Still, he’s the model of health compared to brother Ron, a dentist with a teenage daughter, an unhappy marriage, and an emotional age of 13. No, 12. When Ron’s wife tells him she’s got breast cancer, he freaks. Running home to mom, he asks for a piece of pecan pie and permission to come back and share his old bedroom with Tim. Incredibly—and this may be one reason why Ron and Tim are so fucked up—she eventually comes down off her sensible initial refusal and agrees.

Johnson clearly wants this setup to yield more than Odd Couple-style laughs. He allows Susan some wisdom, her inability to say no and mean it notwithstanding. He puts Ron’s teenage daughter, Roann, onstage so that we can see the effects of her father’s cowardice. He gives Tim and Ron some poignant moments together. And, most daringly, he supplies Ron with speeches so stunning in their infantile candor that the audience audibly gasped at one of them on opening night. (You expect a lot of self-consciously loud laughter and applause from opening-night crowds, but I’ve never known even a board member to fake a gasp.)

And yet Johnson and director Sandy Shinner just as clearly want to temper the harsh realities with humor and sentiment—to make this a play you can have fun at. Hence, those poignant moments between Ron and Tim are surrounded by ridiculous reversions to preadolescent bickering. Tim is played by Steve Keys with a wooliness that’s probably supposed to be endearing but comes across as suggesting undiagnosed mental issues. Joe Dempsey’s Ron actually hides under his bedsheets—not the bed itself, which might make some sense, but the bedsheets—when Roann (fearlessly played by Allison Torem) comes looking for him. The results are neither all that funny nor all that ugly, as a whole, but a disappointing hodgepodge that undercuts itself no matter which way it chooses to go.

Eddie Sisson, the midwestern dad in Brett Neveu’s new, Mametesque drama, Do the Hustle, is a man much more in the traditional mode than Ron or Tim. He’s divorced, sure—but only, we’re told, because his drug-addicted wife lit out when their son, Sam, was five. Sam’s about to turn 18 now, and Eddie’s stuck with him every step of the way, sharing his philosophy of life with the boy and preparing him to join the family business. Trouble is, the family business is grifting and the philosophy is Trust No One. Eddie is a two-bit con man.

Do the Hustle follows Eddie and Sam through a series of cons that are small potatoes in monetary terms but ultimately devastating in their implications. And William Brown’s production for Writers’ Theatre never flinches from the play’s intensity. Both Patrick Andrews (Sam) and Francis Guinan (Eddie) were in Steppenwolf’s 2009 production of American Buffalo, and I imagine that was great training for the off-balance rapport they establish here. But there are also silences—really, stretches of emptiness—in Neveu’s script that you won’t find in Mamet. These are well-played, too, and they’re part of the show’s power.