It’s just a side benefit to an already crackling evening, but if you see Handbagged, the latest in 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series, you’ll also take in snippets from several current Broadway offerings. The 1981 Irish hunger strikes (The Ferryman)? They’re here. Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of several Brit tabloids, beginning with the Sun in the late ’60s (Ink)? Also here. And The Cher Show may present three different-aged Chers, each commenting on the others, but Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s 2010 play having its New York premiere, makes do with older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, each interacting with the past and present and occasionally murmuring, “I didn’t say that.”
There’s also a strong whiff of The Audience, Peter Morgan’s recent rumination on what might have transpired in the private weekly sessions between the Queen and her prime ministers. Here, the older Elizabeth, called Q (Anita Carey), faces off with the elder Thatcher, or T (Kate Fahy), while their couple-of-decades-younger counterparts, Liz (Beth Hylton) and Mags (Susan Lynskey), look on and correct their alter egos, or vice versa. Meantime, Actor 1 (Cody Leroy Wilson) and Actor 2 (John Lescault) play everybody else necessary. Buffini’s concept is simple and elegant, with dialogue and fourth-wall-breaking narration seamlessly interwoven, but for a few meta-theatrical indulgences. And while it can’t ever really be known how accurate she is in evoking private moments in 20 years of British history, Buffini has clearly done her research, and she has a beguiling, light touch on heavy affairs of state.
She has lots of history here: deteriorating relations with Ireland, miners’ strikes, the Falklands, the 1984 Brighton hotel bombing that targeted Thatcher, and, most potently, the Thatcher philosophies on democracy and socialism that meshed so neatly with those of President Reagan. Thatcher, as played by Lynskey and especially Fahy, is a smart, tireless, resolute proponent of self-determination, oblivious to the needs of the less fortunate. Welfare’s a crutch; the National Health Service, an expensive boondoggle; striking miners, a mob that needs crushing. “I would be proud if this word defined me,” says T: “No.” You have to admire her, even if you hate her.
Which makes Elizabeth a gentler soul—how could she not be?—but still an imposing force. How could anyone cope with such demands, of state, of image, where the slightest deviation from popular expectations could threaten the Commonwealth? Carey and Lynskey capture Her Majesty’s poise, sensibility, and sympathy for the underclass (easy enough, huffs Mags, when you’re handed everything). It’s a bit disappointing that Buffini practically ignores Philip, Margaret, and the Queen Mother, and that the action ends with T’s resignation—we’d like to witness subsequent events in Elizabeth’s life, if not Thatcher’s descent into dementia. What’s there, though, is lively and revealing.
Actors 1 and 2 have quick changes of costume and character, and some work better than others. Lescault hasn’t Reagan’s swagger or abundant personality, the President’s two greatest assets, but he’s an affable Denis Thatcher—supportive, jovial, and more than a little lightweight. The versatile Wilson must portray everyone from Labour Party stalwart Neil Kinnock to IRA leader Gerry Adams to Nancy Reagan, which he accomplishes handily in costume designer Richard Kent’s flourish of Arnold Scaasi red.
Buffini does go more meta than necessary: protracted discussions among the players on whether to have an “interval” or not (yes, there’s an intermission); exchanges of roles (both Actors 1 and 2 take a stab at MP Enoch Powell); direct acknowledgment of the audience. The emphasis, though, is on two formidable personalities essayed by four formidable actors. They mix politesse with cattiness, then rally to very occasional common ground, as when Mrs. Reagan arrives at the Charles-Diana wedding in a six-car cavalcade. Mags: “One just for her hats, I think.” Q, to audience: “She actually made a joke. It was a first. I thought she had no sense of humor whatsoever.”
Kent also did the set, a clean black-and-white space, brightly lit by Jesse Belsky. Carolyn Downing’s sound design is apt and even funny, when Liz merrily serves a picnic in a storm at Balmoral, to Mags’s discomfort. Indhu Rubasingham’s polished direction maintains a snappy pace and keeps the shifting viewpoints and personas utterly clear. Handbagged isn’t deep, and it traverses history that some might find painful: the dawning of “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem,” when busting unions and slashing safety nets first passed for patriotism. That’s Reagan and Thatcher for you. But rest assured, Elizabeth will intervene, with a more generous outlook. Long live the Queen!
Moira Buffini’s Handbagged plays through June 30 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, call the 59E59 box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.