“The Two Hander” is a master class in acting — and a damn good show

Jill Eikenberry is standing with her arms crossed looking at Ella Dershowitz who is kneeling on a sofa looking at Jill.
Jill Eikenberry and Ella Dershowitz in Two Hander at NJ Rep. (Photo by Andrea Phox)
Jill Eikenberry is sitting on a chair and Ella Dershowitz is sitting on a sofa.
Jill Eikenberry and Ella Dershowitz in Two Hander at NJ Rep. (Photo by Andrea Phox)

If you want to see acting done at its highest level, but you don’t want to pay exorbitant prices or frustrate yourself with traffic in New York, then hurry down to the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. There you will see, for a brief time, The Two Hander by Julia Blauvelt making its world debut. If you miss it, you will regret it.

The Two Hander is a tale about the relationship between Diana (Jill Eikenberry), a psychologist in Manhattan, and her newest patient, Claire (Ella Dershowitz). Claire is a mess, stuck in a dead-end job, breaking up with her boyfriend, despondent and weepy. Diana will have none of it, calling bullshit on the younger woman’s use of deflecting techniques to avoid facing her deepest issues.

Their therapeutic relationship, possibly more personal than it should be, deepens and grows over the course of the next two years until the day Claire declares she no longer needs further sessions with Diana.

Jill Eikenberry once again proves her talent at portraying strong women of a certain age. She subtly reveals the inner workings of Diana over the course of the play. She is a gifted actress, and it is a warm pleasure to watch her on stage.

Ella Dershowitz is a revelation in her portrayal of Claire, a 29-year-old woman being crushed by circumstances, who finds her inner resources with her therapist’s help. Dershowitz is an actress whose career I will be interested in seeing develop.

Playwright Julia Blauvelt has pulled off a neat trick. The Two Hander, a play about psychotherapy, avoids psycho-babble. The story line is clear throughout, the characters are true to life, and the dialog sparkles even in its most serious moments.

SuzAnne Barabas, NJ Rep’s Artistic Director, with her considerable talent and experience, provides the right touch in directing her actors as they bring Diana and Claire to life. In so doing she honors her playwright and respects the intelligence of her audience.

Of course I must praise NJ Rep’s technical team — scenic designer Jessica Parks, costume designer Patricia E. Doherty, lighting designer Jill Nagel, and sound designer Nick Simone — for so perfectly creating the world this play inhabits. This time around, I wish to express my admiration of scenic designer Parks, who has created an office space that is warm and inviting without being over-cluttered, its red walls festooned with photographs of doorways, its bookshelves not overly filled with well-read, well-worn books, its furniture showing its age but still comfortable. Walking into the theater and seeing the set for this show, as for all the shows at NJ Rep, is always an amazing experience — a view of true theatre magic.

The Two Hander is a story of personal empowerment through therapy, a story of people helping each other through difficulties, and a story of a strong friendship-like relation between two adult women. It is a play honestly told, lovingly written and directed, featuring two of the finest actresses on the stage today. I cannot more strongly urge you to make the trip to Long Branch and experience the wonder that is The Two Hander!

The Two Hander is presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through May 19th, 2024.  For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to njrep.org or call 732-229-3166.