Buy a Guinness in Coho Theater’s lobby before entering the intimately-lit set of Two Pints, and when you find yourself facing a flawless facsimile of an Irish pub, watching a barkeep glide by with a rag and tray of glasses—well, you get the point. You're there. You're in the audience, but you're also in a pub with two old Irish guys. To be honest, this would all happen even if you don't buy a Guinness, but it helps.

Two Pints is Third Rail Repertory Theatre's season opener, and the first in a pair of two-hander plays—the next of which, Sanctuary City, promises to explore a relationship between two friends who are both undocumented immigrants. The season closer, Middletown Mall, expands the dual dynamic into four friends before a karaoke contest. Third Rail especially seems to consider their season as a whole, so it's worth acknowledging this possible season-long arc of duality. The company's managing artistic director Maureen Porter described the upcoming season in Two Pints' playbill, writing, "at the core of each play is friendship." 

Bruce Burkhartsmeier (left) and Mike O’Connell (right) in "Two Pints." Photo by John Rudoff

Two-character plays have a reputation for intensity and heavy emphasis on dialogue over action. They make great sense for arts institutions in unstable times, provided you can find actors good enough to carry them off. Bruce Burkhartsmeier and Mike O’Connell—whose characters are never named in the play, but credited as One and Two in the program—carry this gorgeous little diptych nicely. Through them, the play shows where these men's souls live and what they're like when the masks are down (Guinness helps), and it doesn’t need Monday-night football or shoot-'em-up action to show it.

Everything unspools between the two old friends fretting over problems as different as a car-park ticket that won’t work and the final words of a dying father. These characters descend from Beckett’s classic clowns, Vladimir and Estragon, and they do credit to the tragic, side-splitting comedy of their kind.

One struggles, knowing his father lies mortally ill in a hospital near the pub. Two, we think, may need peace and respite from his wife. They agitate important stuff: What does the leather on a gearshift feel like? (Don’t ask.) Are women different because they don’t have tonsils? Which cancer gives the best social cachet? Is this how we slide into aging? Why did German scientists, of all people, have to prove the existence of an afterlife?

Third Rail Repertory built a flawless set of an Irish pub, replete with charming details. Photo by John Rudoff

Presented as three "rounds," Two Pints makes use of two short intermissions instead of one. The play's first round is well-crafted stand-up. A joke begins, is artfully concealed, and nails you at the end. While the words come from Irish novelist and playwright Roddy Doyle, the masterful timing, pacing, and narrative arc belong to the production's director Scott Yarbrough, who incidentally doubles as the silent barkeep. 

The second round reveals a darker side, mostly from One. He rails against scientists who label three pints in one sitting is a binge, saying, "I’ve been on a binge since 1979." Then he attacks doctors: "They’ll always be the doctors, and we’ll always be the patients." One’s sorrow for his invisible father calls to mind Estragon’s nightly beatings in Waiting for Godot. O’Connell’s perfect bodily and facial Irish-isms are the clown counterbalance to Burkhartsmeier’s darkness. When O’Connell tucks in his chin and leans back with his upper body, you are at once in the presence of every Irishman you’ve ever known.

Mike O’Connell (left) Bruce Burkhartsmeier (right) in "Two Pints." Photo by John Rudoff

In the final round, the work's long comic arc returns, but the gloves are now off. Each man reveals the most painful moment of his life (Non-spoiler: For once, it isn’t priests). There's wrestling with the afterlife—both what one has to do to get there and what is lost.

This play is deeply successful—from its written conception to its staging and presentation to its unsurpassed acting. Go see it in the tiny, comfortable Coho Theatre space. Buy a Guinness at the counter to sip along with the two guys at the bar. 

Two Pints plays at CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh, through Sun Nov 5, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, $25-47, tickets here, recommended for mature audiences.