August 1, 2020

A Hopefully Helpful List of Two-Handers

My pals at BroadwayRadio invited me to join them for this past Sunday’s “This Week on Broadway“ podcast. We talked about some of our all-time favorite plays (you can hear us by clicking here). Regular panelist Michael Portantiere brought up Martin Sherman’s Bent, a play about the Nazi’s persecution of gay people that also moved me when I saw it back in 1980 with David Dukes and Richard Gere.

Bent’s most affecting scenes are between two men who fall in love while forced to do hard labor in a prison work camp but who, under the constantly forbidding eyes of the guards, are never able to touch. Michael suggested that the play’s intrinsic social-distancing might make it a good choice to schedule when theaters start up again after the coronavirus quarantines end but we’re all still a bit wary about actors being in close physical contact with one another.

Bent has at least 10 characters but thinking about its pivotal scenes got me thinking about all the the plays for just two actors that artistic directors might consider doing once they’re allowed to ease their theaters back into live performances. I fell down a rabbit hole as I tried to remember all the two-handers that would fit that bill.

It was great fun to recall both classics dating from the ‘50s by much-venerated playwrights (Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story) and new works by rookie writers that debuted just last year (Loy A. Webb’s The Light). I thought of shows for two men, for two women as well as for cross-sex couples, and roles for young actors, old ones and actors of varied ethnicities.

All in all, I came up with almost 50 titles, including a handful of musicals, even though it’s probably going to be awhile before anyone is going to feel comfortable with having two people spraying all the droplets that singing produces.

Still, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some great candidates and I hope you’ll let me know what they are (I'll make sure they appear in the comments section below). In the meantime, here’s my list of dramatic (and in some cases comedic) theatrical duets, almost all of which I've been fortunate enough to have actually seen:

[update: a month has now gone by and new titles keep popping into my head and into those of my theatergoing buddy Bill, my blogger pal Jonathan (check out his blog here) and even an anonymous reader. So I've revised the list, with the additions noted in red and the name of the person who proposed it put in parentheses; the uncredited ones are those I thought of after the initial post]

1. Boesman & Lena by Athol Fugard {this is cheating a bit because there is a third character but he is silent}, 1969


2. The Blood Knot by Athold Fugard, 1961


3. Collected Stories by David Margulies, 1996


4. A Couple of White Chicks Sitting Around Talking by John Ford Noonan, 1980


5. Constellations by Nick Payne, 2012


6. The Dance and the Railroad by David Henry Hwang, 1981


7. Dear Liar by Jerome Kilty, 1957 (Bill)


8. Dying City by Christopher Shinn, 2007


9. Educating Rita by Willy Russell, 1980 (Bill)


10. The End of Eddy by Pamela Carter, 2018 (Jonathan)


11. Fireflies by Donja R Love, 2018


12. Fifty Words by Michael Weller,  2008


13. The Fourposter by Jan de Hartog, 1951 (Bill)


14. Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally, 1987


15. Frankie and Will by Talene Monahon, 2020 (Jonathan)


16. The Gin Game by Donald L. Coburn, 1976


17. Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, 2015


18. The Guys by Anne Nelson, 2001


19. The Half-Life of Marie Curie by Lauren Gunderson, 2019

20. Hamlet in Bed by Michael Laurence, 2015


21. Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, 1960


22. Harry Townsend’s Last Stand by George Eastman, 2019


23. Having Our Say by Emily Mann, 1995 (Bill)


24. Heisenberg by Simon Stephens, 2015 (Bill)


25. Hughie by Eugene O’Neill, 1958


26. I and You by Laureen Gunderson, 2016


27. In Old Age by Mfoniso Udofia, 2019


28. Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, 1958


29. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson, 1986 (Jonathan)


30. A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, 1977


31. The Light by Loy A. Webb, 2019


32. The Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, 1994


33. Love Letters by A.R.Gurney, 1988


34. Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis 1980


35. Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, 2003


36. The Mountaintop by Katori Hall, 2012


37. The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, 2018


38. ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman, 1982


39. No One is Forgotten by Winter Miller, 2019


40. Oleana by David Mamet, 1992.


41. Red by John Logan, 2009


42. Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade, 1975


43. Sea Wall/A Life by Nicholas Payne and Simon Stephens, 2019


44. Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, 2014


45. Slowgirl by Greg Pierce, 2012


46. A Steady Rain by Keith Huff, 2007


47. The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp 2019


48. Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith, 2019


49. Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson, 1980


50. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, 2001


51. Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson, 1958


52. Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, 2016


53. Venus In Fur by David Ives 2010


54. Vita & Virginia by Eileen Atkins, 1992 (Bill)


55. A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing (an anonymous reader)


56. The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, 1958


And here are a few musicals for two:

1. Broadbend, Arkansas by Ted Shen, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, 2019


2. Daddy Long Legs by John Caird and Paul Gordon, 2015


3. I Do! I Do! by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, 1968


4. John and Jen by Andrew Lippa, 1995


5. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, 2002


6.  Murder for Two by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, 2013


7.  The Story of My Life by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill 2009


Anonymous said...

A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing

broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That's a great one; this tete-a-tete between two arms negotiators during the Cold War was originally written for two men and that's the way I saw it on Broadway in 1988 but I was also lucky enough to see Keen Company's 2014 revival when Kathleen Chalfant played the Soviet diplomat.

broadwayandme said...

As is so often the case, my theatergoing buddy Bill came up with some great choices I'd overlooked and he sent me this email:
Jan: Wow! Impressive to come up with such a huge list. A few more occurred to me:

1) “Dear Liar,” an epistolary play adapted by actor-director Jerome Kilty from the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” which Shaw had written expressly for her. A raffish duel of words, it was adapted for TV and two movies and from the 1960s on was catnip for many famous actors.

2) “The Fourposter” by Jan de Hartog. The play from which the musical “I Do! I Do!” was adapted. A long-run hit, it won the 1952 Best Play Tony and starred married legends Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.

3) “Having Our Say,” about the appealing and accomplished Black centenarian Delany sisters, adapted from their memoir of the same name by writer-director Emily Mann.

4) Heisenberg,” about a youngish, eccentric American woman who falls for a straightforward, older British man. Suspense ensues. It was written by Simon Stephens (I love his “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and presented by the Manhattan Theater Club on Broadway in 2016. The offbeat woman was played by Mary-Louise Parker (natch), the man by Denis [Jan: sic] Arndt, Tony nominated.

5) “Vita and Virginia,” another play based on the correspondence of two sometime famous people, in this case Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Written by Eileen Atkins, and in its 1994 New York City production played by her and Vanessa Redgrave. Damn, those Brits were good letter writers!

Cheers, your buddy Bill

Buddy Bill said...

One more (they keep popping up!): Willy Russell's sweet "Educating Rita" (London, 1980), about a working-class hairdresser and an alcoholic professor. The 1987 NYC debut, with Laurie Metcalf & Austin Pendleton, followed the 1983 movie, with Julie Walters & Michael Caine

broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Bill. That's a great one. I also don't know how it's taken this long for either of us to mention "Two for the Seesaw" by William Gibson, 1958

Jonathan Mandell said...

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill is technically a two-hander, although it feels more like a monologue, and indeed more like a concert than a play

There were a couple recently via MCC, although they were short so I'm not sure they should count
Good as New by Peter Hedges

Frankie and Will by Talene Monahan

Also, recently at BAM:

The End of Eddy By Édouard Louis

broadwayandme said...

And here is yet one more, even though its gender politics may be slightly off for today's audiences, unless the characters were swapped: "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Bill Manhoff, 1964.

Unknown said...

Great list of Two Handers. Also Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig

broadwayandme said...

Hey Unknown, thanks for the kind words. But I'm afraid "Kiss of the Spider Woman" can't make the two-hander cut since just Molina, Valentin and the Spider Woman would add up to three people and the Broadway production had a whole bunch more.

Unknown said...

I think you’ll find the original adaptation done from his own novel by Puig himself was a two hander first staged in London around 1985 with Simon Callow and Mark Rylance. You are referring to the 1995 musical a much later adaptation. I was actually in the original play and it is very good but not often done any more. Cheers Paul

broadwayandme said...

Paul, thanks for this correction! This is obviously a discovery for me. It's so often the sad case that a play seldom gets done once a musical version is created. That 1985 production sounds incredible and I hope you enjoyed your turn with it too. Again, thanks for reading B&Me and even more for taking the time for this exchange. Albest, jan