Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton boasts the gladdening sight of Laurie Metcalf, her every bit the equal John Lithgow and director Joe Mantello’s unfailing grace, but for all of that, no small part of the satisfaction this play delivers is recognition of an entirely different sort. Yes, you’re likely to think at least once or maybe many times during these 90 minutes, that’s just what I suspected… Though if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll add, …but with considerably less wit, intellectual nuance and deep, unexpected compassion.
The premise: Hillary and Clinton peers behind the closed doors of both a marriage and a nation’s political machinery. If you’ve ever wondered what on earth those two people talk about when no one else is looking – and, surely, you have – well, so has Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2), and his play, opening tonight on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, presents his imaginings.
First, though, that title: a declaration of independence and an acknowledgement of an inextricable bond. Hillary stands alone, no need for a last name but trailed by one nonetheless.
And what’s worse, she’s stuck with forces not even named. If Hillary and Clinton was a musical composition, Donald Trump would be its ghost note, unplayed but heard all the same.
Hnath, whose A Doll’s House, Part 2 won Metcalf a 2017 Tony Award, set to work on Hillary and Clinton back in 2015 when Hillary’s destiny still included the White House. The play chronicles a couple days in the 2008 presidential campaign, when she was staring down two threats: One from the past, one from the future. (The play owes a spiritual, if not entirely structural, debt to Tru, Jay Presson Allen’s 1989 trapped-in-a-room tale of Truman Capote in extremis).
Exactly what past, and whose future, is being depicted here, though, is a bit tricky. The play begins – house lights up – with Metcalf taking the stage, mic in hand, to introduce herself as an actress who will be playing a sort of alternate-universe Hillary. What unfolds over the next 90 minutes has an undeniable ring of truth, and almost certainly didn’t happen quite this way, at least not in our particular universe.
The setting is a hotel room in the state of New Hampshire, a room so bland it fools at least one temporary occupant into thinking he’d visited long before it was actually built. A panicked Hillary is conferring with her campaign manager Mark (Zak Orth) over what’s to be done about the miserable state of affairs, financial and otherwise, that is her campaign. A newcomer named Barack – like Hillary, no last name needed – is upsetting a trajectory that was all but assured. Meanwhile that old dog named Bill, pointedly uninvited (until he isn’t) to help with the campaign, hovers over everything like a raincloud that won’t blow away.
Mark begs Hillary not to do what he knows she will: Call Bill for help, for advice, for money. She promises she won’t, then promptly does. Habit? Affection? Or just knowing what needs to be done, damn all else? No matter: Bill arrives late at night, rumpled, alone, a dejected and pompous bundle of self-pity, hubris and undeniable likability. The play hits lift-off.
As the two (and sometimes three, with Mark and then Barack dropping by) hash out what is to be done, the conversation goes where we know it will: Like Donald Trump, Monica Lewinsky’s name is never spoken, but, wow, is she present.
Truths – as imagined by Hnath and so many of us – get spoken: Hillary is, and always was, the brains behind this political duo, and Bill the personality. He knows, and maybe she does, why her campaign is faltering: Bill is all but champing at the bit to tell his wife that she, or at least her public version, isn’t much liked by people, she’s stiff and weird on TV, she has no relatable “story.”
Ah, but she does. Bill is her story, the albatross that follows her every rise and fall, stashed away back home or not. Hillary, she herself knows, will forever be the woman so full of political ambition that she stood by the man who humiliated her on a grand, planetary scale. She defended him when every fiber of her being seemed to be shouting “Run!” Cold and ruthless and ambitious, that’s her story.
Only it isn’t, or at least that’s not all of it. Hnath uncovers nuances in the Clinton marriage that suggests just what Hillary has always been up against, and it isn’t pretty. In a deeply misogynist culture, people prefers their Machiavellies to be princes, not princesses, and certainly not queens.
The play isn’t without flaws – story-wise, it can feel a bit on the thin side, most notably with the brief, plot-moving appearance by Barack (a solid Peter Francis James), and the final blow is telegraphed early on – and perhaps works best as an intellectual exercise – and that’s not faint praise. The cast, needless to say, couldn’t be better. There are no impersonations here, with Metcalf and Lithgow hitting something deeper and more satisfying, gaining universality while nailing the specific – watch how Metcalf sharpens into another person altogether when an outsider breeches the Clintons’ private realm. In a flash, Metcalf seems to concede Bill’s argument: Hillary is inauthenticity to the bone.
Except of course she isn’t. Hillary’s smile might be pasted on, her “great, great, great” upon welcoming Barack insincerity itself, but the plotting and the vision she lays out demonstrates an acumen the men in the room could only admire. That there’s another man and a much, much worse defeat in wait is merely the final cruelty.