'Two Ladies': Theater Review

Two Ladies Theater Production Still 2 - Publicity - H 2019
Helen Maybanks
Girl powerless.

Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic star as political leaders' wives navigating the spotlight while the world teeters on the brink of war in Nancy Harris' new play, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Attempting ambitiously to shoot an arrow through two hoops at once — by presenting both a satire of the current political scene and a counterfactual, Insignificance-style fantasy that blurs together personalities from that milieu — Two Ladies misses its target and zings off into the simply weird.

Debuting at the Bridge Theatre in London, this new comedy-drama by Nancy Harris (No Romance, The Kreutzer Sonata) and directed by the venue's co-founder, Nicholas Hytner, posits a private encounter between two first ladies, that of France (Zoe Wanamaker) and of the United States (Zrinka Cvitesic). Played straight through in real time without an intermission, the play's setting is a high-stakes summit meeting between the ladies' husbands and other heads of state, just when the world is poised to go to war following a widespread terrorist attack on the U.S. from a nation armed with nuclear weapons. Somehow that last plot point is the least implausible idea here.

The opening minutes seem to augur violence and shock from the start as the blood-splattered form of Sophia (Cvitesic) enters the set's pristine neutral, frosted glass-encased conference room (designer Anna Fleischle nails the look of contempo-corp-cult interior design). An Eastern European former model who evokes Melania Trump (but is ultimately quite different from America's undead-like first lady, not least because she seems to possess at least two functioning brain cells), Sophia has just been sprayed with animal blood by protestors. Hustled into the room with her is the French president's wife Helen (Wanamaker), like Brigitte Macron, a woman significantly older than her husband and formerly his teacher. However, unlike Mme. Macron, Helen is English and a former Fleet Street journalist to boot. Bustling around the two women, juggling cellphones and social media feeds, are cynical American aide Sandy (Lorna Brown) and her French counterpart Georges (Yoli Fuller).

Promises are given to bring a change of clothes for Sophia while the wives wait to be taken to a forum on women's issues later that day where Sophia is supposed to give a speech. But it's almost as if the two women have been forgotten behind their cordon of security guards and are left to make small talk. At first, the exchange is perfunctorily pleasant, and it's clear the women barely know each other. Gradually, more sarcasm and snide digs creep in, first from Helen mocking Sophia's assumed dimness and then later when the Serbian woman drops the hint she knows about a scandal that's inconveniently about to break concerning Helen and her husband, a touch that absurdly escalates the melodrama here.

Although the men are never seen, playwright Harris nudge-nudge smudges the recorded fact and rumors about their real-world counterparts, making the Frenchman an adulterous womanizer and the American a deeply closeted gay man who's cloaked himself in religious-right camouflage. That makes the latter more analogous to hypothetical readings of Mike Pence rather than Donald Trump, spiced with tidbits alluding to Emmanuel Macron's private life.

The purpose of this little personality shell game would seem less to avoid libel laws than to justify the really outlandish plot development that creeps in about halfway. Sophia reveals that the bottle of Chanel No. 5 she carries in her handbag contains a lethal poison (shades of the toxin smuggled by Russian agents used in the assassination attempt on the Skripals in Salisbury last year), which she keeps in case of emergency. As we wait for this Chekhovian prop to spill its contents, the talk takes an Aristophanian turn when Sophia reveals, in a stiffly performed monologue, a deep-seated disgust with men, making this a crazy sort of homage to Lysistrata for the #MeToo generation — but much nastier and blacker in tone.

The core concept here isn't necessarily disastrous and perhaps could work with a bit more refinement, but the show on the evening caught for this review hadn't quite settled itself tonally. After a quippy, laugh-generating first half, Wanamaker in particular amped up the noise and the final effect was more one of shallow shoutiness rather than the resonant absurdist comment on our times that Hytner, Harris and Co. were probably hoping for. That said, given that press night coincided roughly with the beginning of the whistleblower scandal over President Trump's conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, no stage production could really compete with the mad-as-a-box-of-frogs insanity unfolding on the world stage. That just made the problems facing Sophia and Helen here seem quaint and bourgie.

Venue: Bridge Theatre, London
Cast: Zoe Wanamaker, Zrinka Cvitesic, Yoli Fuller, Lorna Brown, Raghad Chaar
Playwright: Nancy Harris
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Set and costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Johanna Town
Music: Grant Olding
Sound designer: George Dennis

Presented by Bridge Theatre