By JK Clarke
Hillary Clinton’s long and complicated presence in (or collision with) American politics and various candidacies for president of the United States will be examined by historians for the rest of time. For now, Tony winning playwright Lucas Hnath’s (A Doll’s House, Part 2) newest piece, Hillary and Clinton, takes a satirical look at a pivotal stop along Hillary’s pathway—the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Billed as “primarily a comedy” it’s a also a tragic political and personal history that is both about Hillary Clinton and not about Hillary Clinton at all. Let me explain.
At the play’s start, Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf comes onto the stage as an actor (or “Actress” according to stage directions)—not Laurie Metcalf, but just an Actress. The set is still retracted at the back of the stage, house lights are up and she grabs a microphone stand and walks downstage with it to address the audience. Symbolic of the ineptitude that seemingly haunts her every waking moment, the microphone is missing. Annoyed, she strides to the opposite side of the stage and comes back with a plastic looking, pink and green mic, and launches into a discussion of coin flips and probability. “So, then imagine,” she says, concluding a convoluted explanation of the intersection of probability and infinite universes, that on “[a distant planet like this one], there’s a woman named Hillary. And this woman HIllary is trying to become president of a country called the United States of America . . .” What Hnath is so artfully trying to explain is that while the play is well informed and researched, it’s entirely fictitious and speculative. It’s about the Clintons . . . but not really . . . or kinda. And that’s the spirit with which this play must be consumed. The real Hillary Clinton is a cultural touchstone, whom people either ardently adore or desperately despise. Hnath doesn’t want that to get in the way of this story, which is really more about a woman trying to become President. It just so happens that it’s Hillary. Because, really, the meat of her story is quite compelling.
Once the Actress has introduced the premise, the set (Chloe Lamford)—a high-ceilinged, bright white, open-backed box, representing the living room area of a large hotel room in New Hampshire, adorned with scarcely more than an office chair and a small refrigerator—slides forward to the edge of the stage and the play begins.
Hillary is facing off against presidential campaign neophyte Barack Obama (Peter Francis James), to whom she has just lost the Iowa Caucuses and the story focuses on Hillary’s struggle with whether to stay in the race or take up Barack’s (it’s all first names here) offer to join his campaign as his running mate. We meet campaign manager Mark (a wonderfully frustrated and bumbling Zak Orth) who begs Hillary not to contact her husband, who has been kicked off the campaign trail and is seen as damaging to her reputation; but, of course, she does. Bill (John Lithgow, yet another Tony winner, and an American treasure) is her Achilles Heel. Call it love, call it reliance, call it codependency, her unwillingness to let go of him is her tragic flaw.
Despite there being four characters in the play, Hillary and Clinton is essentially a two-hander, with the scenes between Hillary and Bill being the central thrust of the play. Metcalf and Lithgow are magical together and their scenes are essentially an acting clinic. This is how it’s done. Lithgow sets the tone of his Bill with a hesitant entrance through a door frame that he practically has to stoop to pass through (what’s with the giant men in doorways on Broadway this season?). Metcalf, as is her wont, plays her Hillary with a deadpan nonchalance that nonetheless telegraphs both her rage and exasperation—along with the occasional tender moment.
The play is loaded with quiet commentary, some of it in Hnath’s delightfully subtle and often wildly funny dialog, some of it in director Joe Mantello’s (Tony Award, Three Tall Women) comic staging (Bill eating pizza out of a box, Hillary pillaging the minibar) and a ton in Rita Ryack’s snarky costuming. No pantsuits here. Instead, it’s Hillary improbably sporting Land’s End-style gear (is she trying to fit in?) as well as some other mortifying outfits that have to been seen to believed; and Bill wearing ‘80s style running shorts that threaten to reveal an unwelcome glimpse of the ol’ boy’s coin purse. The outfits are meant to humiliate nearly everyone in the cast—including schlubby Mark, whose poorly cuffed slacks break far too late over the tops of his unpolished shoes. Barack, of course, is well dressed, but not nearly as natty as the actual man.
The whole story comes down to a tale of a woman is who is ready, in every sense of the term, to become President. She has the background, the poise, the experience. But she is waylaid at every turn not not by herself, but by the men around her—her husband, her campaign manager, the media and even Barack—who all demonstrate weaknesses that outweigh hers. But she’s held to closer account than they are. Is it because she’s a woman? Or because she lacks a personality? You decide. But little does she know that in another eight years (if this hypothetical Hillary’s path is to follow the real one), she will be thwarted even more heartbreakingly by two more men to whom she is morally superior: one who makes her husband’s womanizing and financial malfeasance seem quaint; the other, an über-villain who likes to show off his hairless torso in cartoonish displays of manliness (riding horseback, wrestling bears). As the song goes, clowns to the left, jokers to the right, this Hillary is stuck in the middle and can’t catch a break. But, maybe in a parallel universe . . .
Hillary and Clinton. Through July 21 at The John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.hillaryandclintonbroadway.com
Photos: Julieta Cervantes