Even though the stereotypical British handbags are never mentioned by name in the Round House Theatre production of Moira Buffini’s Handbagged currently playing as part of 59E59 Theater’s Brits Off Broadway series, the iconic bag does make its metaphoric appearance almost consistently on the forearms of all four of the wonderful ladies who lead us on this fascinating historical journey. The four are essentially two; one pair for each of the two ladies at the core of this piece, namely Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The older and wiser pair basically play narrators and tour guides for us as we are witness to the sometimes tense interactions between the younger alter egos. Kate Fahy (Young Vic’s Othello) stoically plays the determined T to Anita Carey’s (Berkeley’s Tribes) regale Q, watching with a keen eye over the younger proud Mags, portrayed strongly by Susan Lynskey (Round House’s Pride and Prejudice) interact with the curious junior Liz, portrayed most beautifully by the throughly engaging Beth Hylton (Gulfshore Playhouse’s A Doll’s House). They square off with awkward grace and politeness, much as we would expect from these two famously disciplined and self contained historical figures, diving into their shared political history with detailed exactitude, trying their best to navigate the conflicts of Britain’s conflicts and personal stances, many of which are widely known, and some, not so much.
The smart, witty and sometimes chilly stroll through the cold air of Thatcher three-term years plays out wisely and elegantly. The two-acter drags a bit, especially after the British interval, as they stride forward into the future, correcting and squabbling amongst themselves, even with their own younger versions, about what was actually said or done in those private moments between the two. It’s a strong, yet occasionally overly formal affair that engages within fascinating bits of clash and pivots. These ladies get a strong and much needed boost of comedic energy from the two male actors that play an assortment of auxiliary roles with determined glee. Cody Leroy Wilson (Round House’s The Book of Will) is fantastic, standing against yet serving the two/four well in a wild array of detailed characters, such as the Queen’s press secretary but also the wonderfully engaging and funny Nancy Reagan. John Lescault (Round House’s The Lyons) charmingly pulls off a cowboy hat-wearing Ronald Reagan, as well as an ornery Prince Phillip at a picnic. Their assist fills out the meta-narrative with passion and joy, which in general is held pretty tight and close to the breast, much like that iconic handbag on the arms of those two diametrically opposed ladies. Without these two game gents, the pleasure and inventiveness they bring in their interactions would be greatly missed.
It’s a classy act in general, this peek inside the unknown Handbagged, perfectly played out against a backdrop of simple black and white, thanks to the artistic team of scenic and costume designer Richard Kent (IRT’s Disco Pigs), lighting designer Jesse Belsky (Round House’s Oslo) and sound designer Carolyn Downing (Broadway’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses). This secret interaction is not exactly new territory, mind you, as Peter Morgan took a broader and more imperial view of the Queen’s weekly engagements with a long list of Prime Ministers in the loftier The Audience, but playwright Buffini (Storm Ted, wonder.land), as directed with precision by Indhu Rubasingham (Kiln’s Red Velvet), does a fine, although sometimes brittle examination of what the cool air must have felt like between these two powerhouse women of that era. It’s a captivating, although sometimes slow and shuffling walk over and through the complicated highlands of the Monarchy’s world as she delicately determines her role in British history with her Prime Minister. If you are a history buff like myself, especially of England’s dynamic conflicts under the Iron Lady, then this is a stroll you might want to join. There are aspects of strife and history I knew nothing of, but their complicated engagement serves it up well, giving me a different view into a world I am always intrigued by. So take a seat, as I also love the gossip, and the horses.
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