The Great Divide

Rational as we denizens of this corporate technocracy are, no amount of science can undo our voodoo fascination with identical twins. From the mythical Romulus and Remus to the pubescently perky Mary-Kate and Ashley, look-alikes have always captured our imagination. These mirror images are walking, talking symbols of yin and yang, good and bad. Leave it to playwright Paula Vogel to exploit all the metaphorical, familial, physical and psychological aspects of identical offspring in her wickedly funny political rant The Mineola Twins, now running at The Little Room Downstairs Theater.

Displaying none of the emotional darkness of her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive (about incest) or the urgent intimacy of her Obie Award-winning The Baltimore Waltz (based on her brother's struggle with AIDS), Vogel, through her fictional twins, showcases her intellectual heft and wonderful theatrical vision. Making smart use of twins, in all their complexity, the iconoclastic comedy examines the position of women in American politics over the past 50 years. To that end, Vogel has created Myrna and Myra Richards (both played by Kara Greenberg), a pair of identical sisters whose head-butting political views give voice to some of the most wildly divergent ideologies American women have ever raised a fist to.

Vogel has said that "family remains the structure at the heart of most drama because the family, after all, reflects its community's values and the politics of their time." And so it is with Myrna and Myra, whose story begins in Mineola, New York, back in the sock-hop days of the 1950s. This is the era when high school girls are labeled according to their bra sizes and their sexual habits. "Good" girls like Myrna (who's "stacked like a stack of pancakes") stay virgins while they dream of marriage, children and an eventual escape to a "three-bedroom house in Great Neck." Putting off her aching boyfriend, the good twin coos sweetly, "I have to earn the right to wear white when I walk down the aisle."

The "evil" twin Myra, on the other hand, acts like the "whore of Babylon" according to her father. Even though she's "flat as a pancake," Myra apparently has done the dirty deed with the entire football team. And while her sister saves her money for a stenographer's class, Myra is serving cocktails to older men down at the local dive, reading Jack Kerouac, hanging out in the Village with street poets, and planning a life in the fast lane. "There's never been a movie made that's even close to how I'm gonna live," she croons. "I'm making it up from scratch. No marriage. No children. No suburbs. Just freedom!"

The fact that Myra's dreams sound an awful lot like they were ripped from the script of a James Dean movie is, of course, important. For though Myra's desires appear to be the exact opposite of her sister's, both girls have bought into the American myth. One story is traditionally female: suburban safety; the other is mostly masculine: the thrill of the open road. These seemingly paradoxical narratives blindside both girls in much the same way.

The next time we meet the sisters it's 1969. Myrna is indeed living in Great Neck, but her husband spends a good deal of his time "shacked up at the Plaza with his secretary," and her son is a dope-smoking 14-year-old who adores his aunt Myra. Life in the burbs is not what she imagined. At the moment the scene opens, Myrna is withdrawing thousands of dollars from the bank to help her wild-child sister who's on the lam for a Patty Hearst-style holdup. Resentful of the publicity her bad twin is getting, Myrna wants the feds to "nail" Myra's "heinie" to the wall. Son Kenny (played by a charming Peter Gehring) wears bell bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt as he listens with adolescent admiration for news of his aunt, much to the disappointment of his mom, who wears pumps, a tailored suit and her '50s ideology like a badge while the world burns around her.

As the quintessentially angry white woman trapped in the wrong decade, Greenberg is hilarious. She prevents Myrna from falling into any sort of familiar stereotype and shapes her into a strange and fascinating character complete with nervous twitches, wide, staring eyes and an urgent antipathy for her sister. In fact, the entire show begins to fly with the aforementioned scene; it's here that Vogel's unpredictable political conflict comes into focus.

Myra, who's hiding out in the East Village, admits that she "really, really fucked up." She's been busy trying to "crush the system," but has done little more than crush a toe on a bank guard with the rear tire of her get-away van. And as everyone knows, "Once you've drawn blood from a pig, they really come crashing down on you." This is hyperbole at its best, and Greenberg plays it to the hilt. Bouncing slightly in the middle of a mattress as she rants about Tricky Dick, peace marches and the imperialist profits of Coca-Cola, she finds both the humor and the heart in Myra's realization that "if you spend enough time in the kitchen cooking for the young men who organize peace marches, you really want to see blood and guts and gore."

By the time these women reach the late '80s, their opposing politics have driven a deep divide between them. Myra runs a Planned Parenthood with the help of her lesbian lover, while Myrna hosts Talk Back, Get Back, Bite Back, a right-wing radio show. They don't speak anymore, but Vogel brings them together in a bizarre and funny scene that involves a bomb, a box and a case of mistaken identity.

Director Richard Laub has created some entirely original moments with his set changes that are handled by a pair of cross-dressing boys, Greg Gorden and Drew Bettge, who account for some of the silliest and most enjoyable moments of the show. And though it takes her a while to find the center of this strange script, Greenberg, who has a bitterly smart sense of irony, eventually gets there, and once there, runs with the fascinating idiosyncrasies of Vogel's imagination.