‘The Two Hander’ injects a lot of drama into psychotherapy process

two hander review


Jill Eikenberry, left, and Ella Dershowitz co-star in “The Two Hander” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

To call Diana — one of the two characters in Julia Blauvelt’s “The Two Hander,” which is currently having its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — an unconventional psychotherapist would be a massive understatement. When Claire, a fidgety 30-something bundle of neuroses, arrives in the small, cluttered, bookshelf-lined Manhattan apartment that is Diana’s office, to begin therapy, Diana is almost immediately aggressive and confrontative. When Claire describes her problems with psychobabble (“I create codependent relationships as my primary form of intimacy,” “I have issues around abandonment stemming from an unfulfilling childhood” and so on), Diana breaks out into howling laughter and calls it “bullshit.”

Most clients would run in the other direction, as fast as they could. But Claire sticks it out. And by the second session, in fact, she seems much better: Calmer, and more sure of herself. They continue to make progress, though the process sometimes seems a little too easy. Diana constantly encourages or goads Claire into revealing something, Diana then spouts some wisdom about it, and Claire absorbs it almost immediately.

Jill Eikenberry plays Diana and Ella Dershowitz plays Claire in this production, which is directed by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, and has a few surrealistic surprises up its sleeve. (Jessica Parks, who is in charge of scenic and prop design, deserves a lot of the credit for making these at-times shocking twists happen).

Act 1 ends with Claire having a major breakthrough. But things get more fiery in the second act, with tensions between the two women mounting, and the increasingly bold Claire ultimately calling Diana out on her own bullshit (as some psychotherapy patients eventually do, but rarely in so dramatic a fashion).

While the strong-willed Diana — played with impressive ferocity by Eikenberry — follows her own rules as a therapist, Blauvelt does evoke the typical ebb and flow of the therapeutic process. A friendship-like bond develops between the two lonely women. But Claire often feels lost and unsure of what she is doing in this frequently too-cold or too-hot apartment. (Diana’s frustrating, cajoling phone conversations with her landlord add some comic relief).

“Therapy,” Claire tells Diana, “is like one of those terrifying, nameless nightclubs you go to when you’re, like, 22, and you don’t know any of the songs, and there’s no exit, and you’re not sure how to act, so you look around for what other people are doing, but you can’t see anyone’s faces; it’s all just hair and arms.” But wandering around the proverbial dark, she does have some occasional breakthroughs that make the whole thing worthwhile for her.

Does Diana’s therapy “work” for Claire? Ultimately, yes. Would it work for everyone? I doubt it.


Jill Eikenberry, left, and Ella Dershowitz in “The Two Hander.”

In a way, the two characters are on opposite journeys. Claire, timid at first, becomes more assertive (though her personal problems don’t all magically resolve themselves). Diana — who seems brash and confident, and sure of herself as a therapist, with wisdom build up from many years of practice — doesn’t want to let her own problems surface, but by the end of the play, they do so, heartbreakingly.

Ultimately, the play is, arguably, more about her than about Claire, which is kind of a surprise when one of the central tenets of psychotherapy is that the therapist is there only to help the client.

Which leads me back to the title of the play, “The Two Hander.” These words are never spoken by either character, but the phrase is well known in the theater world, meaning a play that features only two characters and is, in most cases, largely about the relationship between the two of them. The title is a clue that Diana is not destined to stay in a supporting role, in terms of the play’s story.

“If the title reminds you that you’re watching a play, that’s a good thing,” Blauvelt has said. “That’s part of it. For me, this isn’t just a recognition of therapy, it’s a recognition of theater: two spaces where we come to have our stories witnessed.”

“The Two Hander” will run through May 19 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Visit njrep.org.


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