Since his wife's death, Max has presided over an all-male household, including two adult sons and his own younger brother, Sam. Max is given to aggressively deriding and insulting his sons and brother as lazy, stupid, and useless, as well as occasionally hitting them with his stick. He mocks Sam for his job as a chauffeur, lack of a wife, and lack of masculine traits, which Max prides himself in having in abundance. However, Max is getting old, and some of his aggression seems to be fueled by concerns over his waning strength and virility. He often reminds the family of his youthful strength, his tough and masculine job as a butcher, and his role as father of three sons. He dislikes being reminded of his age. Max drives much of the conversation, alternating between mild insults and teasing to outright hostile aggression, with occasional moments of something approaching admiration for Jessie and Ruth. However, misogyny is never buried very deeply, and his praise of these women quickly turns to disparagement, calling them whores. In the end, he proposes that Ruth stay with the family, though whether he wants her to fulfill the role of wife, mother, or whore—or all of these—is unclear.
Although Max is the patriarch and instigator of many of the play's conflicts, Ruth plays a more central role in its thematic development. In many ways she enters the play not just as Teddy's wife, finally getting to meet his estranged family, but as a substitute mother and an archetypal woman—whether that archetype is wife, mother, or whore. In a play dominated by versions of masculinity—hardworking family man, dim-witted athlete, conniving pimp—she alone supplies all female stereotypes. Like Jessie, Ruth is a mother of three sons and steps into a home that has been deprived of a wife and mother. Although she fills these roles, the misogyny in the family also places her in the role of sexual object, treated both as revered and disdained. Her decision to stay with Teddy's family while he goes home to take care of their children can be interpreted either as gaining power over the men in the family or as giving up power to become all those men need and desire.
Teddy left home six years before the play begins, married Ruth, and had three sons. He received a PhD and teaches philosophy at an American university. Now he has returned to his family's home with his wife, Ruth, about whom his family is unaware. He is surprised that nothing has changed—his bedroom is still the same as it was when he left, and his key still opens the front door—yet his feelings about his father and brothers are unclear. Most likely he left on poor terms with them, but he also seems eager to introduce Ruth and even defends them to Ruth, saying, "They're not ogres." Teddy's conflicted emotions about his family, his role as outsider, and his tendency to observe rather than act make Teddy an awkward and enigmatic presence. Without intervening, he watches as his wife kisses, embraces, caresses, and dances with his two brothers. He doesn't react with anger or frustration when Ruth spends two hours alone with Joey in "love play," nor when his father and brothers propose keeping Ruth with them and proposing she work as a prostitute. He calmly relays to her the information that they would like her to stay. Then he states his willingness to return home without her and tend to their three children. As the play ends, he has left the house on his way back to his American life, leaving Ruth behind.
Sam has the closest thing to a moral compass in the family and consistently signals his disapproval of the other men's questionable moral choices. He has taken on some of the mothering functions of the family, especially washing up after meals and cleaning in the kitchen. Max, who sees himself as the more masculine brother, continually derides Sam for not going into a more hardworking profession (like Max's butchering) and for not having a wife or girlfriend. Yet, he has been keeping a secret for many years. Sam knows Max's late wife, Jessie, and Max's best friend, MacGregor, had sex in the back of Sam's car. Sam often seems on the verge of telling Max outright, and it is unclear whether Max knows of his wife's infidelity. In the final scene, Sam unexpectedly blurts out the secret and then collapses on the floor. His announcement is met with little reaction, underscoring his irrelevance in a family that now has become centered around Ruth.
Lenny is the first onstage, the first to learn Teddy and Ruth are visiting, and the first to feel the lure of Ruth's sexuality. He is more intelligent than his younger brother and more a man of words. He tells stories of his violence against women and engages in active conversation more than his brothers do. Moreover, he is the first of the brothers to go along with Max's morally questionable idea to keep Ruth and have her work as a prostitute. It is in this exchange, near the end of the play, that he is revealed as a fairly successful (by his own account) pimp. In some ways, for all his talk, Lenny is less a man of action than his younger brother Joey. It is Lenny who first dances with Ruth and kisses her, but it is Joey who takes her upstairs with him. In the final tableau, or scenic arrangement, Lenny is not a participant in the worship of Ruth that his father and younger brother engage in. He stands somewhat aloof as instigator and observer, rather than participant.
Joey is in his mid-20s, athletic and slightly dull. He is less articulate than his brothers, but it is implied he is good-looking and fit. One story related by his brother Lenny seems to cast him as brutish toward women—disregarding his date's request to have sex only with a contraceptive—but in the play itself he does not take what isn't offered and even spends two hours in "love play" with Ruth that by general account doesn't progress to intercourse. Ruth is in charge of Joey's behavior toward her. In the end he lays his head in her lap like a child, and she strokes his head in a motherly fashion. The interactions between Ruth and Joey blur the line between mother and lover, but he is not quite a lover and most definitely in need of a mother.