Picture the scene: two actors, sharing a stage. Each of their characters have their own sets of needs and wants—their own objectives they’re fighting to achieve within the story. Even if their motives are hidden and their tactics are cunning, there’s a refreshing simplicity to the drama. We know that either “Character A” or “Character B” will prevail and the story will end. Suddenly, though, everything changes … because “Character C” has just walked on stage! Who is this interloper? What’s their relationship to the other two? Are they allied with anybody? Can they be trusted?! Three-hander plays are tricky beasts; They often lack the straightforwardness of two-handers and yet they exist in far more focused worlds than larger ensemble works. They are the perfect forum for drama and conflict, embodying that old adage of “Two’s company, three’s a crowd.”
This article is a list of the best three-hander plays for actors. These plays represent some of the most brilliant, engaging and highly-regarded stage works for three actors; we have included a short description of each, as well as our reasons for the play’s inclusion.
Before we jump into the list itself, here’s a little disclaimer about our choices—which you may remember from our similar collection of best two-hander plays. This list of the best three-hander plays is the opinion of none other than the StageMilk team, and we bear full responsibility for any joy/confusion/derision/pain our choices might elicit. If you agree with our choices, want to add to the list or loudly protest all ten selections (it is the internet, after all), feel free to comment or send us a message on social media. As always, we’ll take the silver lining of being able to discuss theater with passionate people!
No Exit (1944) by Jean-Paul Sartre
“Hell is other people.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist masterpiece is the perfect distillation of what a good three-hander can be. No Exit’s characters find themselves trapped together in hell, in a room they are unable to leave. At first, they seem to weather this (seemingly) tame version of eternal damnation … but soon, guilt, shame and anger catch up with them as their sins are brought to light. Further complications arise in the form of a love triangle: each character’s intended to utterly despises them, damning them to further anguish in the existence they have to share.
No Exit is perhaps the most famous work we’ve included on this list. And yet it’s often dismissed by actors for study or performance for exactly this reason: it’s too “old” or “classic” or “canon” to be of any real dramatic worth in contemporary society. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. No Exit is a sharp, economical thriller with characters who feel so real despite the absurdity of their shared situation. Take a chance on this one, and you’ll see why it is such a lauded piece of modern drama.
Play (1962-1963) by Samuel Beckett
“Front centre, touching one another, three identical gray urns. From each a head protrudes, the neck held fast in the urn’s mouth.” A man, a woman and the ‘other woman’ detail their entanglement in an affair. They speak in rapid bursts—sometimes over one another—in a way that filters the plot and characters into mere abstractions. On the last page of the script comes the incredible stage direction of “REPEAT PLAY“. The action and the story begins again—much like the cycle of love and passion and loss that fuels all infidelity.
Play is the kind of work you usually encounter in drama school as an exercise and promptly forget about. But it is worth any actor’s time for the deftness of the writing and how these three strange representations of characters are so completely wrought—urns and all. As part of the Beckett On Film series (2000), British director Anthony Minghella helmed a brilliant adaptation (featuring Alan Rickman) that is worth a Google and a watch.
Old Times (1971) by Harold Pinter
It begins simply enough: married couple Kate and Deeley discuss Kate’s friend Anna who is coming to stay. Anna’s relationship with Kate seems strange, or at least strained; Deeley can’t believe he’s never met her before. But when Anna arrives, murky recollections of the past suggest a web of moments shared between the three of them—none of which they can seem to agree on. In the peculiar climax of the piece, Anna declares to Kate “I remember you dead”, after finding her corpse in the little house they shared, twenty years past.
Confused? So are we. So is everyone! There are numerous theories as to what Old Times means, including split personalities, ghosts and even fractured timelines. Such is the genius of Harold Pinter’s brilliant, streamlined puzzle of a show. It subverts, it delights and it will surely keep us engaged with its themes and characters for many years to come.
Unveiling (1975) by Václav Havel
Unveiling is a one-act comedy by Václav Havel: beloved Czech statesman, activist, artist and Frank Zappa superfan (seriously, look this up). Considered ‘part two’ of his Vaněk trilogy, it places the protagonist—a stand-in for Havel—in the living room of bourgeois couple Vera and Michael. The couple seem desperate to impress and spoil their guest, displaying their modern art and collection of American music. Vera and Michael’s talking is near-constant, cyclical and absurd; As the piece progresses they begin to break down, begging forgiveness from Vaněk for their complicity in the Communist regime that saw his own life as a playwright destroyed.
The play is an angry, embittered admonishment of class and political indifference by Havel—whose own persecution during Soviet rule was extreme. That being said, it’s absolutely hilarious: productions of it are exceedingly rare, but it is worth tracking down the text and becoming immersed in its excellent use of language. It is sometimes translated in English as “A Private Viewing”.
This Is Our Youth (1996) by Kenneth Lonergan
One of the better known plays on this list, Kenneth Longergan’s exploration of adolescence in Reagan’s America is a darling of graduation showcases in drama schools around the world. That’s not to say the play itself isn’t worth reading, performing and falling in love with. The plot, involving two privileged young friends, a girl that captures their interest and a stolen sum of $15,000, is largely there to keep the incredible interactions of the characters humming along. Are they vapid, self-absorbed and (at times) incredibly foolish? Sure. But we defy you not to love them all.
This Is Our Youth plays a lot like a Neil Simon comedy. Its complex underpinnings around adolescent anxiety in an age of materialism elevates it beyond simple battles of wit between ‘young kids these days’. This Is Our Youth is a deceptively deep and nuanced work, and a hell of a ride at that.
The Boston Marriage (1999) by David Mamet
David Mamet has written a vast array of brilliant works for small ensembles of two, three or four performers. While the obvious choice for this list might have been his breakout hit American Buffalo (1975), we have instead decided to single out The Boston Marriage for its acerbic wit and brilliantly crafted female characters. Anna and Claire are a formidable double act, and the frankness with which Mamet portrays a lesbian relationship at the start of the 20th century marks it as a surprisingly forward-thinking work of queer theater.
The Boston Marriage plays out as a drawing room farce; However, it brings depth and warmth to two characters whose likeable qualities are in short supply (the third character, their maid Catherine, spends much of the play in tears from their rebukes). The language is rich, and yet economical, the plot is simple, and yet affecting. The play is lesser known, and yet one of the author’s finest works. Look it up: you’ll have a blast.
The Brothers Size (2006) by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Ogun Size is trying to help his younger brother Oshoosi back onto his feet after a stint in prison. Oshoosi is less concerned with a normal life than he is the prospect of owning a car—a symbol and means of freedom so long denied to him. The situation is complicated by the Oshoosi’s former arrival of cellmate andegba, whose persistent disregard for a straight life puts the three characters into fraught situations.
The Brothers Size is a perfect example of concentrated storytelling—everything you could hope to find in a good three-hander. Despite its masterful sense of focus, its themes are numerous and momentous and never once feel like a reach from the author. Ogun, Oshoosi and Elegba are simply dealing with the here-and-now of their lives, doing their best to navigate all that the world throws at them.
The Aliens (2010) by Annie Baker
Annie Baker has a number of impressive plays to her name: Body Awareness, Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014). Among them is The Aliens: a love letter to oddball male friendships in small, nowhere towns. The play takes place in an alley behind a coffee shop. Its two central characters, Jasper and KJ, talk art and music and bullshit as they avoid all responsibilities of life. According to the author, “at least one-third of the play should be silent, uncomfortably so”. And much of The Aliens is exactly that—silent and uncomfortable.
But it’s compelling. When so much of the play is nothing, every moment of ‘something’ means the world; high schooler Evan emerges from the coffee shop and strikes up a friendship with the two strange older boys. Their exchanges feel so natural and unforced. Look past Baker’s trademark silences and find the beauty in this understated masterpiece. And you’ll soon recognise the heights this young author would one day reach in later plays.
The Bleeding Tree (2014) by Angus Cerini
When it burst onto the Australian theater scene in 2014, Angus Cerini’s story of a mother and her daughters took out a top literary prize and enjoyed a rash of brilliant productions across the country. The subject matter is severe—it’s often described as a ‘murder ballad’ refit for the stage—but the characters are compelling and the story of their attempt to get away with murder keeps you immediately engaged.
While The Bleeding Tree shines in performance, it’s fair to say the play on the page is no easy to read. There’s no character description, no mention of who says what, just brilliant fragments of thought and speech such as: “With a bullet through your neck, numbskull of yours never looked so fine.” It’s a challenge for actors to realise, but a damn rewarding one at that. Focused, yet epic, it’s a story of domestic violence and the fallout of toxic masculinity we’re bound to tell again and again.