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Two-handers bring challenges to stage

Jason Robert Brown’s cult-classic “The Last Five Years,” which was recently adapted into a movie, is one example of a two-hander, or a play with only two actors. Amazon

Luke Haynes

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When people think of Broadway shows, they tend to imagine larger-than-life spectacles with enormous sets, huge orchestras and rows upon rows of chorus members. However, while this does describe many Broadway shows, there are certainly some theatrical triumphs that are just as impressive without all the pomp. In fact, there are several treasures of the stage that move their audiences to laughter and tears with only two actors. These two-person plays, or two-handers as they are sometimes called, bring with them new challenges and advantages that you won’t find in ordinary, large-cast plays.

Two-handers have found considerable success in musical theater with Jason Robert Brown’s cult classic “The Last Five Years” (which recently received a movie adaptation) and the less well received, though more highly recommended by this columnist, “The Story of My Life” and “John & Jen.” These melodic masterpieces prove that it only takes two to create the most powerful aspect of any show: a relationship. Whether it’s a relationship of passionate lovers, childhood friends or bickering siblings, the relationships in these musicals go through the best of times and the worst of times to show the importance and dangers of mutual dependency. 

While these tuneful two-handers found loving receptions from musical enthusiasts, their repetitive nature and lack of diversity make them a “niche product” that often doesn’t appeal to broad audiences. Additionally, the small cast and lack of recognition means they rarely get produced on an amateur level, so unless they get a movie adaptation like “The Last Five Years,” they rarely become household names.

Straight plays also have plenty of two-handers in their ranks such as Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” Not only did these plays achieve critical acclaim, but they also found their way into the textbooks of theater students everywhere on account of their clearly-defined characters, circumstances and conflicts. More recently, there have been more additions to this line of two-handers such as Nick Payne’s “Constellations” which is currently playing on Broadway and John Nara’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” which will soon be making its world premiere here at The University of Alabama. Like its predecessor, “White Elephants” spends its entirety exploring one very important relationship and works to convince its audience that nothing in the world exists except for the two lives they see before them. Whether the casts consist of a small army or a simple duo, theater creates a world where nothing outside matters, and for that they deserve a hand – or two.

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Two-handers bring challenges to stage