Two Ladies begins with a striking image: FLOTUS Sophia enters with her cream two-piece covered with deep red blood. It’s a clear nod to Jackie Kennedy, and a powerful introduction to the theme of Nancy Harris’s new play: the psychology of women who exist a manicured fingernail’s breadth from the most powerful jobs in the world.
Croatian-born former model Sophia, recently splashed by anti-war protestors, is an obvious analogue for Melania Trump, while her French counterpart Helen, the much-older wife of a thrusting young French leader, stands in for Bridget Macron.
It’s set during an emergency summit in which America, responding to a 9/11-style terrorist attack, seeks French support for military retaliation. Fittingly, the First Ladies are quarantined in a conference room down the corridor – so near yet so far.
With the building in lockdown, they can’t even call their husbands, which is especially frustrating for Helen, who sees herself as the French President’s confidante and conscience.
The play is at its best as a character study, examining the women who exist on the periphery of power. Zoë Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitešić brilliantly convey the impotent frustration of two competent women reduced to mere trophies. The interplay between them is razor sharp, with Helen haughtily condescending to her beautiful young counterpart until Sophia reveals her steelier side.
For an hour or so, Two Ladies is a gripping if unremarkable drama, but a late change of pace, in which it morphs into a nihilistic power fantasy, feels unearned, and the play ends not with a bang but a whimper.
Director Nicholas Hytner is a pro, however, and even as realisation dawns that this far from a play for the ages, it’s always eminently watchable, thanks in part to strong performances from Wanamaker and Cvitešić.
Like its twin protagonists, Two Ladies flirts with greatness without ever really threatening to achieve it.