Roger Clark and Rob Benson in In Your Image. Photo by Anton Brookes.
BOTTOM LINE: Great acting combined with very realistic dialogue make this show about sibling relationships painfully real, yet comforting.
In Your Image is the story of two brothers searching for meaning and each other's acceptance as they gather their deceased father's belongings in his filthy apartment. Their multifaceted relationship is revealed as they sift through layers of trash and empty booze bottles carelessly strewn about by the man who abandoned them twenty years prreviously. Drama unfolds as they quip about why their father left, and the boys blame each other and themselves for their father's weaknesses. When we meet the father in the second act in a flashback, his initially sympathetic demeanor becomes as repulsive as the disgusting apartment he lived in.
Roger Clark carries the show as the handsome and cooler older brother Chris. Chris still has fond memories of his father taking him out as a child, but over time has developed a distaste for his passing out drunk in the park and taking him the to the pub. You rightly get the impression that he blames his awkward younger brother Warren, played by Rob Benson, for making his father leave when Warren was just a baby. Rob wants to spare Warren from those feelings, but can't help himself when Warren draws comparisons between Chris's behavior with his own family and their fathers'.
What makes In Your Image so compelling and scarily real is the incredibly vivid dialogue. Benson, who also wrote the play, perfectly captures the way that siblings talk to each other. A brother is not like any other man you know, you expect more from them because you grew up with them. You say painfully honest and selfish things to a brother or sister that you would never utter to another adult. Benson's characters praise and blame each other for unreasonable things, like mental illnesses and abandonment. The brothers know each other more than they know themselves, and speak to each other in such a frank manner that it made my skin crawl because it was so freakily familiar.
In the second act we learn why the father (played by John Michalski) left and why Chris resents both he and Warren. Michalski's performance is the highlight of this show. He plays the drunken old man with compelling intensity. His connection to the bottle in his hand, to the other people in the room, and to the reality he built for himself is frighten. Even though the man is a mess, an alcoholic and a dead-beat dad, Michalski initially makes him likeable. Then, as details of his departure from his family twenty years earlier are revealed, he becomes so unappealing and horrible, he becomes as filthy as the filth surrounding him with over one conversation. Great writing by Benson, and a gripping performance by Michalski.
The technical elements in this show work really well for the piece. The scenic design by Kacie Hultgren makes you uncomfortable and weary as soon as you step into the space. That set would make A&E's hoarders say "Damn!" Benson uses devices such as disposable cameras filled with thousands of pictures to make their father's unknown life even more mysterious.
The only thing that wasn't cohesive for me was Benson as the younger son. While he offers an impressive performance, the visual disparity in ages between older brother and younger brother feels off. He seems like he should portray the older of the two.
In Your Image explores the relationship between father and son, brother and brother. Family dynamics are not written in stone, and life sometimes calls for role reversals. In a playwright's note in the program, Benson says that the role of the father is only ever defined by the child. In Your Image is a peek at two brothers defining each other and themselves in the light of their two different father figures.
(In Your Image plays at the 59E59 Theaters, at 59th East 59th Street, between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, through February 27, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30PM, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:30PM and Sundays at 3:30PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at www.59e59.org or by calling Ticket Central at 212.279.4200.)