New York City Theater
"Hillary and Clinton"
Yes, “Hillary and Clinton” is about those two famous figures -- battling, loving, needing – who are so embedded in our consciousness. Yet Lucas Hnath’s very funny, very thoughtful play both is and is not about “them.” That the play’s characters are like and unlike our political couple follows logically from our being reminded at the opening, “if space is infinite, then it follows that there must be an infinite number of planet Earths, exactly like our planet Earth, inhabited by people” who look, do and have the same names as we.
It’s in this alternate universe that we meet Hillary in 2008, played by the marvelously wry and sardonic Laurie Metcalf, as she campaigns in a New Hampshire primary election. Fearful of losing, she enlists the help of a husband named Bill, an amusingly egocentric John Lithgow. At first she wants his monetary contribution; later she reluctantly wants his advice.
He tells her to remember that people vote their hearts, not their brains. Indeed, Hillary’s campaign gets a boost when she shows her more emotional side, when the tough and pragmatic candidate tears up at a luncheon. Asked how she can balance taking care of a family with running the country, her weepy reaction is seen as that of “a real person.” Typically, she denies she was crying. “Maybe I was tired,” she says. ”I was up until 4 a.m.”
In a pristine hotel room designed by Chloe Lamford, void of any furniture except one chair, Hillary and Bill fight not only for their individual power but their marriage. Not ignored are Bill’s affairs, especially with an unnamed intern, nor his political successes, which Hillary would love to emulate.
For all its politics, though, the play doesn’t neglect the centrality of gender. “You need to show you’re soft and caring,” advises Bill, “a mother who will make us soup and put us to bed.” It’s advice that horrifies Hillary whose public and private rivalry with Bill bedrocks their relationship. Playwright Hnath very specifically says these characters are not imitations. Rather, they’re similar, not exact.
Fighting to win, Hillary dismisses the advice of her campaign manager, Mark Penn (a scruffy Zak Orth) to accept her rival candidate’s offer to make her his running mate if she pulls out of the race. When that rival, identified as “The Other Guy” but addressed as “Barack,” appears in person, Hillary asserts her ambition to become top of the heap. (It doesn’t help that Obama is portrayed by a non-charismatic, too old Peter Francis James.),
Under Joe Mantello’s crisp direction, dialogue is weaponized, every barb both revealing and questioning. Metcalf dives into the ambiguity with a vengeance, giving us a frightened yet determined figure, someone unable or just unwilling to trust and love. She stands at a door as if guarding it, as she guards her emotions.
Bill, on the other hand, is everyone’s friend, attentive, cheerful, laid back, able to connect. Lithgow paints him as a know-it-all whose casual manner and dress (he’s a picture of personal indifference in his shorts, when no one is looking) is not unattractive. But beware.
Playwright Hnath very specifically says these characters are elevated, as he cautions, “beyond a facile tabloid reality.” They exist, perhaps, in another world. And in us.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 24, 2019