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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 12, 2019

Beth Hylton and Susan Lynskey
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Handbagged, opening tonight as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, bills itself as a comedy about the closed-door meetings between two extraordinarily iconic women of twentieth century Britain: Queen Elizabeth II and the "Iron Lady" Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The description ("a comedy"), however, barely begins to scratch the surface of the mix of satire, politics, and meta-theater of Moria Buffini's splendidly performed and well-directed play about two people who have so little in common that their weekly requisite get-togethers over an 11-year period resemble nothing less than a visit to the "hell is other people" realm depicted in Sartre's No Exit.

Theater, in general, has been kind to Queen Elizabeth. In such plays as The Audience, which depicts 50 years of such tête-à-têtes between Her Majesty and the parade of Prime Ministers who entered and exited through the years, the queen comes off as gracious, well-informed, and surprisingly (at least to American audiences) democratic in her concerns for the underprivileged.

On the other hand, there is Margaret Thatcher. Surely someone besides her husband Denis Thatcher must have liked her. She was, after all, repeatedly elected to serve as Prime Minister, the first woman and the longest serving PM in the twentieth century. But consider how she is referred to in the musical Billy Elliot ("Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher. We all celebrate today/Cause it's one day closer to your death") or the hatred spewed by Aunt Pat in The Ferryman ("If she was standing here I'd fuckin' take a knife from that drawer and I'd disembowel that smirking, sanctimonious stone-hearted sow right here on this table"). And did I mention that someone actually attempted to kill her with a bomb attack on a Brighton hotel where she was staying?

Two such bigger-than-life characters almost have to be played by more than one actor each, and indeed that is the case with Handbagged. Anita Carey and Kate Fahy play older versions of, respectively, Elizabeth and Margaret, who hover over things and comment on the action, while Beth Hylton and Susan Lynskey play the characters during the Thatcher years, from 1979 to 1990. During their weekly private sessions, Elizabeth attempts repeatedly to break though the dense wall behind which Margaret isolates herself, but to no avail. Thatcher is appalled that the queen will not dutifully throw her full support behind the Conservative Party, while Elizabeth is appalled that she cannot find a soft spot to influence Thatcher to ease up on her free-market economic policies, her anti-Irish independence stance, and other right-leaning positions about the way things ought to be done. Yet they continue to honor the customary meetings, even when they have nothing to say to one another. One of my favorite moments in the play, for example, depicts the pair of them sitting together like an old quarrelsome married couple, each of them reading a newspaper and not speaking.

Americans are likely to be less knowledgeable of some of the specific political issues that come up during the course of the play, but to help us along, there is the presence of Ronald Reagan (John Lescault, in one of several roles he assumes), and Nancy Reagan (Cody Leroy Wilson in one of the several roles he takes on). We know enough about the Reagan years in this country to make the connection with the viewpoint of their friends, the Thatchers. And, perhaps ironically, one of the bigger applause lines goes to Mrs. Thatcher: "The act of resistance is our defining act as human beings." What she means by this may not coincide with how the audience takes it, but it resonates nonetheless.

To add some further spark, the play brings in elements of meta-theater by calling attention both to itself ("Whatever we say must stay between these three walls") and to the multiple role changes, mostly for comic effect, by Mr. Lescault and Mr. Wilson, who constantly remind us they are being called upon to play different characters and who sometimes even fight over who gets to recite the juicier speeches. Sometimes things threaten to spin out of control as we dance between reality and the fanciful, but director Indhu Rubasingham and the polished performances of the cast members make for a delightful brew of comedic drama.

Through June 30
Theater A at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: