Two circumspect and skeptical women pace around, size each other up and jostle oh-so-crisply for position at a crucial political summit in a single, unchanging space. We are, as “Hamilton” puts it, in the room where it happens. Except we’re not. We’re down the hall from there. In Nancy Harris’s new one-act play, “Two Ladies,” the lives of wives of two rival presidents are pointedly contrasted, but the longer they spend in the room where it didn’t happen, the less genuine drama is generated.
“It’s a scene from Carrie,” cries PR woman Sandy (Lorna Brown) and she has a point. A shocked Sophia (Zrinka Cvitešić) has just been doused in blood by a protestor enraged by the bellicose policies of her husband, the (unnamed) U.S. President. She’s ushered into the room in which Helen (Zoë Wanamaker), wife of the more pacific French president, is waiting. With the presidents in conference and the crowd outside and angry, the building is in lockdown and the stakes are consequently high.
Given that Sophia is the heavily accented, Croatian, designer-dressed, thin-as-a-rail wife, it’s obvious she is modeled after Melania Trump while Helen, as the much older wife of the younger Frenchman, is clearly intended to be a version of Brigitte Macron. In other words, we’re in the increasingly hoary tradition of those fictional bio-drama “When X Met Y” plays, albeit with the twist that these characters are only suggestive of real people.
Once the premise has been (swiftly) established, the two women circle one another, issuing sly digs at the policies of the rival presidents and appraisals of their own roles. The initially frosty mutual antagonism allows for some amusing lines at each other’s expense, not least Sophia’s tart “I think it’s so refreshing to see an older woman with a younger man.” And Helen raises a laugh of recognition with her cri de coeur: “I was vulnerable, I was 41.”
Yet even as the froideur between them begins to thaw, tension continually leaks from the proceedings as Harris fails to create a convincing dramatic imperative as to why the women should pour out their souls to one another. More problematically still, the discussions, however illuminating on the limits of female power, achieve little or no momentum because their speeches have no subtext for audiences to glean. They’re expository rather than dramatic.
In the last section, Harris changes gear with a sudden shift into action on the part of the two frustrated women. But to make this giant plot twist work, audiences have to have fully engaged with the women’s plights. Harris’ plotting, however, relies not on convincingly detailed truth but, instead, on withheld information, dollops of which are planted with ill-disguised contrivance at dramatically opportune moments.
None of which is the fault of the cast or the creative team. Wanamaker growls with lethal disdain, her asperity as deliciously artful as her (excellent) wig, and Cvitešić (an Olivier-winner for her role in the musical “Once”) matches her with a cool mixture of world-weariness and watchful duplicity.
Together with crisp work from designer Anna Fleischle, director Nicholas Hytner gives both actors space while keeping the pace up whenever possible. But his tendency to resort to a soundscape and doomy underscoring to beef up the (in)action indicates an awareness of the writing’s weakness. Despite the undoubted strength of Harris’s opening gambit, what must have looked strong on the page turns out to be disappointingly inert on stage.