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The Theatreguide.London Review

Two Ladies
Bridge Theatre   Autumn 2019

For the second time this month (The first was Hansard) I have to report on a not-very-good play that is a good vehicle for two very good actors.

If you see and enjoy Two Ladies, it will be because of the talent, skill and star quality of Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic, not the characters they play or the story they're in.

It won't be hard to focus on the two stars, since they're onstage throughout and generally without anyone else. But it is them you'll be watching, not their characters.

Wanamaker and Cvitesic play the wives of two Presidents, shunted off into a side room while their husbands are in conference.

(Those with very long memories and a penchant for bad plays may be reminded of Robert David MacDonald's 1982 Summit Conference, about the mistresses of Hitler and Mussolini killing time while their men planned killings.)

Here, playwright Nancy Harris deliberately keeps some details vague. One President is evidently from what was the Soviet zone while there are conflicting hints connecting the other at various moments to the UK, the USA or France.

The Eastern country has been hit by terrorists and wants to go to war against the (presumably Middle Eastern) country believed to support the terrorists, and the meeting is to determine if the other will join in.

But that offstage drama is actually just a McGuffin, an excuse to get these two women into the same room.

Wanamaker's character is a Hillary Clinton figure, an older woman very involved in her husband's Presidency, while Cvitesic's is a former model and trophy wife trotted out for photo opportunities and otherwise generally ignored by her husband.

The two women cautiously chat, then debate politics, then get catty, then try to manipulate each other, then bare their souls, then bond in disgust at the mess that men have made of the world. Because that not politics or war, but feminist anger is ultimately what the plays is about.

But of course you won't care. There are undoubtedly excellent plays already written or waiting to be written about feminist anger, the bonding of women who seem to have little in common, or the realisation by powerful women that men still hold more power than they. But this isn't one of them.

The basic question of any play is 'Why are these people in this room?' and playwright Harris is particularly weak in establishing and maintaining the fictional premise.

Aides and security people occasionally enter the room to give one reason or another why the First Ladies can't leave, but none are really convincing. Wanamaker's character repeatedly displays her cell phone and threatens to use it to contact her husband or the outside world, but doesn't.

The emotional swings between the two women, jumping from cool politeness to catty personal attacks to sharing of deep personal stories to suicidal despair to bonding and determination to act, are too obviously the manipulations of the author rather than anything growing out of the characters.

Typical of Harris's ill-thought-through dramaturgy is that at one point the women are tempted to an extreme symbolic act of defiance, but in a situation in which the symbolic intention of their action would certainly be misunderstood.

(I'm being deliberately vague to avoid a spoiler, but essentially the world would believe they did it for a plot reason different from their symbolic intention.)

If we can't really believe the situation, the plot turns or the characters, we can appreciate and enjoy the performances. Zoe Wanamaker signals 'powerful woman' just by the way she stands and walks, and she is a master at the sly and destructive throw-away zinger.

Cvitesic has the actor's dream challenge of giving us one impression at the start and then surprising us with how wrong that was, as she shows the seemingly mindless bimbo to be more clever, devious and determined than we thought.

You won't believe the situation the two characters are in, the ease with which they go from indifference to nastiness to bonding, the rather predictable deep dark secrets they share or, particularly, the decisions for action they take near the end of the play.

But if you ignore all that and just watch the two actresses displaying their talent and craft, you can enjoy Two Ladies.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Two Ladies - Bridge Theatre 2019

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