The Tony award winner dominates as the politician in a 2008-set work of speculative stage drama with John Lithgow as her supportive husband
Remember when Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire? This isnt revisionist history. She lost the state to Bernie Sanders in 2016. But in 2008, after an embarrassing finish in Iowa, she beat out Barack Obama. Suddenly, her campaign had momentum. For a while anyway. Lucas Hnaths play, Hillary and Clinton, slight and not especially timely, returns HRC to that contest, nearly a decade before the white pantsuits, the leaked emails, the chants of Lock her up. Call it Throwback Broadway.
Still this isnt a documentary play or even really a nostalgia trip. As Hillary (Laurie Metcalf, Broadways reigning first lady and, sure, why not, its president, too) explains in a curtain-raiser speech, this play takes place in a different universe, one of an infinite number of universes, which mostly seems like a cheeky way to skirt rights and libel issues. A veneer of speculative fiction allows Hnath the freedom to invent scenes few were privy to, to tailor the given circumstances to suit his dramatic ends.
The play, which confines Hillary to a featureless hotel suite (the sleekly anonymous design is by Chloe Lamford, the unforgiving lights by Hugh Vanstone), begins before the vote, when the campaign is short on money and enthusiasm. Hillary wants some help from Bill (John Lithgow), but her campaign manager, Mark (Zak Orth) thinks this is a terrible idea. As Hillary struggles with whether or not to ask Bill for cash, Obama (Peter Francis James) offers her a deal: wind down her campaign now and hell make her his running mate.
Hnaths overarching, unwavering subject, in plays like A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, Red Speedo, The Christians, A Dolls House, Part 2, is moral agency and accountancy: why do we make the choices that we do and what do those choices cost? Typically, his characters lose even when they win. So it goes for Hillary and Clinton. Hnath wrote this play in 2008 and it will resonate with 2016 election watchers, because in this play, as later on, no option is the right one. Sometimes others fail Hillary. Sometimes Hillary fails herself. Bottom line: she fails.
Thats Hillary. Not Laurie. With A Dolls House, Part 2 and Three Tall Women (both also at the John Golden Theatre, which might as well be renamed the Metcalf) in seasons past and Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf in her immediate future, she is Broadways most in-demand actress. (Did she and Glenda Jackson really appear in a play together? Did we survive?) Hillary and Clinton reminds us, if anyone dared forget, why shes so exciting, with her great intelligence and great versatility and her surplus of fierce, nervous energy that barely seems contained. You keep expecting her to Hulk out, emotionally, but her performances are always precise.
Under Joe Mantellos steady, not especially inspired direction, shes not imitating Hillary here, but shes clearly excited by what a woman like this reveals and what she must conceal, as she prowls in fleece slippers and slides gin into her Snapple bottle. Metcalf is often most thrilling when shes listening, which she does with intensity and variety, as though no ones ever told her that some actors prefer talking.
Orths role is minor. Mark, clutching his donut box, is a mechanism, not a character. Jamess gloss on Obama, while artful, isnt especially revelatory. Lithgow is enjoying himself with Bill, who in his interpretation is bluff and impetuous, a little weak, a little oily, a man who thinks he knows better and doesnt. His legs, in shorts, look like twin links of weisswurst.
At the core of the play are Bills scenes with Hillary and its here perhaps that Hnaths imagination fails. Theres something worn-out and maybe even a little distasteful in viewing her through the prism of her husband, seeing a savvy politician who would go on to win the popular vote as, first and foremost, his wife and his victim.
Too soon? Too late.