From Laurel & Hardy to Hope & Crosby, from Beavis & Butthead to Rogen & Franco, male double acts have long been a comedy staple. But they can be just as potent in serious drama (though they do sometimes have cost-conscious producers laughing all the way to the bank).
Whereas male-female two-handers like Venus in Fur and Oleanna usually explore the battle between the sexes, two-man shows tend to shine a concentrated light on that eternal testosterone-soaked struggle for territorial supremacy that finds its purest form in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. But it also arguably plays a part in Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna, even if one of the characters happens to dress as a woman.
Speaking of territorial struggles for supremacy, both of these aforementioned plays are about to go head-to-head as they open in the same week in the same venue (though not on the same bill). To celebrate this double-whammy of double-headers, we look back on five other two-man plays that have proven that, male braggadocio notwithstanding, small can be beautiful. Follow the links to read Rover reviews of some of the plays mentioned.
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You. On one level, the two characters of this 2006 play from Caryl Churchill (author of Top Girls ) are anonymous lovers. On another, they’re symbols of the USA and Great Britain, whose respective hegemony and subservience fuels the low-level sub-dom dynamics of Sam and Jack’s billing and cooing. Elliptical language and a mysteriously levitating sofa give a pretty strong hint that we’re not in the world of everyday kitchen sink drama. At least Churchill resists the temptation to make one character a soundbite-mangling cowboy and the other a tail-wagging poodle.
Sleuth. Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 play is a gloriously mischievous take on the country-house whodunnits of Agatha Christie and the like. Even the cast list plays games with the audience (look away now if you want to preserve the surprise), fooling us into believing there are going to be more than two actors popping up on stage. The 1972 film version cast old hand Laurence Olivier as the upper crust mystery writer and Michael Caine as, to use the line borrowed by The Smiths, the “jumped-up pantry boy who doesn’t know his place.” Caine played Olivier’s part (opposite Jude Law) in a 2007 film version adapted, appropriately, by that master of menacing one-upmanship, Harold Pinter.
A Life in the Theatre. As with his Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s play about mutual mistrust on the boards sees age and experience elbowed aside by relatively youthful get-up-and-go. This time, instead of an ensemble of shark-toothed salesmen, it’s a couple of actors going through the rigeurs of dressing room rivalry, fraught rehearsals and on-stage panic. Reflecting the dynamics of the play, this barbed and painful comedy has provided great opportunities for up-and-coming actors to get to grips with Mamet’s sweary poetics, and for seasoned veterans like Denholm Elliot, F Murray Abraham and, most recently, Patrick Stewart to pretend to be all washed up.
Zoo Story. “Two people meet on a park bench. They start talking. Go!” Most playwriting or improv classes have at some time thrown this bone to their students. Whether or not one such student was Edward Albee, his debut play does indeed begin with two men meeting on a park bench. Other playwrights who possibly attended the same class as Albee include David Mamet with his Duck Variations, and Herb Gardner with I’m Not Rappaport.
Red. Part of that well-trodden grouchy-mentor-meets-callow-student genre (see the recent Whiplash), John Logan’s imagining of the goings-on in Mark Rothko’s studio is minimalistic in terms of cast size and subject, being mostly about Rothko’s monochromatic red phase. But behind it swarms a multitude of questions about genius, Nietzchean aeshthetics, Apollonian versus Dionysian impulses and, of course, the ramifications of redness. Like watching paint dry, but in a good way.
Hosanna plays on Mainline’s main stage, March 17-29; The Dumb Waiter plays on Mainline’s Mini-Main, March 18-28. More details for both shows here.
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Among his staged works are the two-man play Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development and will be teaching a course on writing criticism at Vanier College from March 23.