Lights up: two actors share a stage. No frills, no flash, no cast of thousands … just two people coming together to talk, argue, clash and quarrel until one emerges victorious. Nothing quite like it, right? Writing a play is hard enough without limiting yourself to just two characters; for this reason, good two-hander plays can be surprisingly hard to come by. As an actor, they can be incredible resources for you to find good audition scenes, pieces for an acting class or showcase or even as something you can study with a friend to hone your skills in quiet periods. Take a look at the selection we’ve compiled below: track them down, read them and love them.
This is a list of the best two-hander plays for actors. These plays represent some of the greatest pieces of theatre for just two performers, with a short description of what to expect from each. We have also included a list of honourable mentions for further reading.
Now, before we get into it, let’s run through the regulation disclaimer: this list is the opinion of the good folks at StageMilk. You might encounter some favourites on the list below, you might also notice some glaring omissions. If you can think of any plays that simply have to be included, feel free to comment below this list, or reach out to us on social media. At worst, we’ll get to talk about some great theatre together!
The Dumb Waiter (1957) by Harold Pinter
Two hitmen—veteran Ben and rookie Gus—are sitting in a basement waiting for their assignment. Behind them, a dumbwaiter connects them to the outside world; it spits out food orders, despite the basement not being a kitchen or connected to a restaurant. The whole situation is almost farcical … until a final twist gives the play an ending of pure menace.
The Dumb Waiter is an earlier work by the great playwright Harold Pinter, and signals the emergence of many of the stylistic quirks he’d later become famous for. It is one of his most beloved plays and enjoys regular programming around the world to this day.
Happy Days (1961) by Samuel Beckett
Winnie, a fifty-something woman buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt, goes about her daily routine. She prattles on to her husband, Willie, who is buried somewhere in the dirt. As a work by Samuel Beckett, the piece is steeped in weird imagery, confounding symbolism and absolutely brilliant writing.
In all honesty, this is a piece that far favours the role of Winnie than Willie—whose contributions are more like interjections than swathes of text. But Happy Days is regarded as one of the all-time great works of theatre; wade into its weird and find the poetry.
True West (1980) by Sam Sheppard
Charismatic drifter and some-time burglar Lee shows up to the house of his brother—timid screenwriter Austin. Through the course of the play, as they bicker, jostle and fight, they become confronted by the realisation that they each admire and envy the life of the other. Few plays juggle menace and humour with such deftness.
Okay, we’re being a bit cheeky with this choice. Yes, there are two other characters that appear briefly in Sheppard’s bleak, Americana magnum opus. But True West is the story of these two brothers, and the drama on stage lives and dies with their struggle for fraternal supremacy.
Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune (1987) by Terrence McNally
Two middle-aged people end their first date in bed together. Johnny, a handsome cook from a greasy-spoon diner, is sure that frumpy waitress Frankie is his soul mate. She’s not convinced, however, chalking their (honestly) sad encounter in her depressing apartment as a one-night stand. The play takes place over the course of the evening, as they talk and learn about one another. It ends with one of the more touching moments ever written.
It’s not the most fashionable play on this list, but Frankie and Johnny keep drawing audiences and actors alike into their deceptively nuanced story. The characters are brilliantly written, and it’s a great play to explore for performers who might want to exercise both comic and dramatic muscles—sometimes within the space of a single sentence.
Oleanna (1992) by David Mamet
Oleanna is an acidic look at gender politics and sexual harassment in higher education. Carol, a college student, has three meetings with her professor John; each address a shifting power dynamic between the two informed by their daily interactions and the larger society they inhabit. Communication is key, but all the while hampered and heightened by Mamet’s trademark stylistic dialogue: interruptions and ellipses infer and suggest—always dancing around the point and raising the dramatic tension.
This is probably one the more famous two-handers in contemporary theatre. For actors, it presents some considerable challenges in how they handle the dialogue and two (arguably) unlikable characters. It’s certainly worth looking at Oleanna as a product of its time, but it’s an unmissable and brilliant piece of theatre nonetheless.
Topdog/Underdog (2001) by Suzan Lori-Parks
Topdog/Underdog is another play of desperate fraternal rivalry. Booth and Lincoln, living together after the latter was thrown out by his wife, tumble through a slow-motion tragedy of bickering and hustling. As they struggle with the trials of the present, the past bubbles up between them and culminates in a shocking event that lives up to the irony of their names.
The year following its premiere, Topdog/Underedog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And while you might fear that the myriad of themes it explores—race, masculinity, family, identy—would render it a heavy affair, it rips along with tremendous energy. An effortless, perfect dramatic work.
The Mercy Seat (2002) by Neil LaBute
A man’s mobile phone rings for the umpteenth time. In the en suite bathroom, his boss/lover showers and dresses. Out the window, he watches his office, the World Trade Centre, collapse into the Manhattan skyline. And as his wife tries calling him yet again, he considers using the tragedy to ‘kill’ his former life and start over.
The Mercy Seat is often overshadowed by its status as the first major theatre work to directly address September 11, 2001. And while this fact will always be bound to the play, it should never eclipse the expert characterisation of Ben and Abby, and LaBute’s observations about love and intimacy; Abby is perhaps the playwright’s finest role for an older female actress.
Blackbird (2005) by David Harrower
Blackbird tells the story of a young woman named Una confronting her abuser, Ray, in the break room of his workplace. Fifteen years prior, he initiated their relationship when he was 40 and she was 12. Una has tracked Ray down to question him and come to terms with her own journey as a survivor; Ray, keen to forget the past and move on from the event, tries to navigate her interrogation and learn her intention for reappearing in his life.
An uncomfortable, claustrophobic play based on true events, Blackbird is everything a good two-hander should be. It’s a tense character study, it alludes to bigger and important events beyond the world of the play on stage. But buoying all of the baggage these characters address is the crackling tension of the action on stage: Blackbird doesn’t allow its story to be mired in the past, but propels the story forward as its characters contend with the present.
Constellations (2012) by Nick Payne
On paper, it sounds simple enough: a cosmologist, Marianne, and a beekeper, Roland, fall in love and begin a relationship. Then, an act of infidelity kills their romance until they are reunited, years later, at a dance class. They take up together again, until Marianne falls ill and asks for Roland’s help in seeking out an assisted suicide.
What separates Constellations is the form it takes to tell the story. Marianne is fascinated by concepts such as string theory and multiple universes; this is reflected in the play through time jumps and repeated sequences—offering different outcomes and possibilities to events just witnessed. It gives a tremendous sense of importance and scope to such a warm, focused story.
seven methods of killing kylie jenner (2019) by Jasmine Lee-Jones
#kyliejennerfidead: so declares online activist Cleo on an anonymous Twitter account. She has taken umbrage with the young influencer’s continued appropriation of Black culture and aesthetics, and as she continues to announce ways in which Jenner should be capitally punished, the court of public opinion begins to turn its attention towards her directly.
seven methods is a mile-a-minute piece of writing that perfectly weaves modern internet slang into its dialogue—resulting in a piece of theatre that feels simultaneously hip to the zeitgeist, and utterly timeless. Jasmine Lee-Jones is a relative newcomer to the theatre world. However, this early effort of hers is impressive enough to mark her as a writer work is sure to find its place in the theatrical canon for decades to come.
Finally, here are a few others we couldn’t help but to mention. Happy reading!
- Pariah (1889), by August Strindberg
- Hughie (1958), by Eugene O’Neill
- The Zoo Story (1959), by Edward Albee
- Educating Rita (1980), by Willy Russell
- Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (1984), by John Patrick Shanley
- The Last Five Years (2001), by Jason Robert Brown (musical)
- The Mountaintop (2009), by Katori Hall
- Between The Sheets (2012), by Jordi Mand
- Guards at the Taj (2015), by Rajiv Joseph
- The Sound Inside (2018), by Adam Rapp
- Broadbend Arkansas (2019), by Ellen Fitzhugh (musical)