Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow are such consummate stage performers that they could read the phone book and keep us mesmerized. As directed by Joe Mantello in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, they have the kind of rapport of actors who have worked together for years. Unfortunately Hnath, who gave Metcalf a Tony Award winning role in his A Doll House, Part 2 in 2017, hasn’t given them much to work with. True, his play inspired by real people is entirely supposition with enough true facts to make us curious. But at 80 minutes playing time, Hillary and Clinton seems padded, and set in 2008 there isn’t a lot to wait for as we all know how it turned out.
Possibly because the title characters are real people that we all know or because Hnath has no way of knowing what was actually said, he has Metcalf come out before the play begins and tell us that we are to imagine an alternate reality where there is another former First Lady Hillary Clinton running for president in January 2008 and married to another former president Bill Clinton. On a nearly empty hotel room set (except for one chair), this Hillary interacts with her campaign manager Mark (her real campaign manager was pollster Mark Penn) about her chances of losing the New Hampshire primary in two days’ time. The campaign is also out of money as people do not want to be associated with the losing candidate. Mark tells her not to call her husband who had been sent home from the campaign some time before for doing things his way.
As soon as Mark leaves, Hillary calls Bill who shows up pretty quickly. She tells him about her money problems and the polls which predict she is going to lose to the other candidate, here simply named Barack. She tells him that Barack has asked her to be his running mate if she will do nothing to win the primary and she is considering it. Bill tells her why she is losing from his point of view: she comes across as wooden, stiff, cold and superior. He tells her to show her emotions which she says she can’t do in public. She warns him not to interfere in what is her time. And then he promptly disregards her warning and gets to work. In the play’s second half (but performed without an intermission) we find out what he has done and meet Barack who pays her a visit after the primary vote has been counted.
During their interactions, they discuss political strategy, their marriage, his legacy, should she have divorced him, and is his baggage holding her back. She tells us her reasons for running: “Because for decades, I’ve been sitting over to the side, waiting, watching – watching other people do what I know I can do better. Watching other people who don’t know what they’re doing get ahead of me, sitting here, having the better ideas first.” Part of the problem with the play is it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it offers no surprises. It stays pretty close to known facts, and things we don’t know seem tremendously plausible without being dramatic revelations.
Although the script (originally written in 2008 but first staged in 2016) advises not to cast actors who look like these people, three of the four actors (Metcalf, Lithgow and especially Peter Francis James as Barack) suggest their counterparts. Metcalf who is on stage throughout makes us see all of the qualities that Bill has told us are holding her back: wooden, stiff, cold and superior. However, in her hands, Hillary is both sympathetic and the smartest person in the room, one who has been denied her chance. Lithgow is charming as Bill, part of the actor’s stock in trade, but also devious and remembering things to his advantage. Obviously not as well known, Zak Orth’s Mark is completely convincing, a true professional who can’t work under these circumstances with Hillary being pulled in two directions. James’ Barack is rather flatter than his counterpart but he plays him as suave and articulate, suggesting the man but not his charisma.
Some of the other choices are problematic. Chloe Lamford’s New Hampshire hotel room is almost nonexistent, a white box with a black back wall, which only points out how little is going on. If the set had been very realistic or cluttered, we might be fooled into thinking a good deal more is happening. Aside from Barack who arrives formally dressed in a sober suit, tie, and long coat, Rita Ryack’s costuming for the other characters is mainly lived-in sports clothes, possibly to suggest that we are witnessing private moments when no one else is around. The lighting by Hugh Vanstone attempts to make up for the lack of scenery but only comes across as too bright and distracting. While director Joe Mantello keeps the play comically and entertainingly bubbling along, Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton seems like a sketch for the real play he hasn’t written. On the other hand, since we know how 2008 and 2016 turned out, it all seems a bit beside the point. If this is intended as a tragicomedy of a woman denied her dearest wish, it does not come across in that vein.
Hillary and Clinton (through July 21, 2019)
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.hillaryandclintonbroadway.com
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission