Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 18, 2019
Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Chloe Lamford. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Cast: Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow, Zak Orth, and Peter Francis James.
The play, smartly directed with great attention to detail by Joe Mantello, takes place in a nondescript hotel room (the barely-there set design is by Chloe Lamford) in New Hampshire on the eve of that state's 2008 primary election. Hillary Clinton (brilliantly portrayed by Laurie Metcalf) is not a happy camper. She is coming off an embarrassing third-place finish in the Iowa Democratic Caucus, after Barack Obama and John Edwards (remember him?), and she fully expects she will lose in the nation's first primary. We watch her pace anxiously as she spars with her chief political strategist Mark (Zak Orth), who attempts to reassure her on the long-term numbers, and urges her to follow one very specific piece of advice: Don't talk to Bill.
"Bill" is, of course, Hillary's husband Bill Clinton (John Lithgow), who has been pushed to the sidelines for the duration of the campaign, both because Hillary must not be seen as riding on his coattails and because he is an unpredictable loose cannon, just as likely to sabotage as assist her run for the nomination. So, naturally, no sooner has Mark left the room than she's calling Bill and asking him to come to New Hampshire. Ostensibly, she is turning to him for financial help for the campaign; as Mark has told her, "we poll well with the poor, but the poor don't have money." But, actually, it is their co-dependency that is the order of the day.
Much of the play focuses on the Clintons' personal relationship, in which everything we all imagine they might have to say to each other comes out in the open through Mr. Hnath's razor-sharp writing. The two hottest items, the elephants in the room, are addressed with such conviction, you have to remind yourself that the playwright has invented their conversations around these issues: Will Bill's legacy amount to anything other than "that moment" that led to his impeachment and her public mortification? Would Hillary's public image and political career be better served if she were to divorce him?
Hnath is so good at creating plausible dialog from this fodder that he opens the play with a clarification, the equivalent of the "all persons depicted are fictitious" disclaimer used in films or novels. In it, Ms. Metcalf speaks directly to us and explains that what we are about to see is occurring in one possible alternate universe. We might be in a world, she explains, where Hillary Clinton is elected president and Bill never is, or where both serve in that capacity, or where neither of them does.
It's a smart move, a way for the play to operate in the realm of speculative fiction so that it can make the points it wishes to without letting the facts get in the way. There is, for example, a highly dramatic scene in which Mark resigns on the spot, frustrated with Bill's interference. As it happens, the real-life political strategist, Mark Penn, did resign from Hillary's campaign, though for totally unrelated reasons.
This framing premise also allows for a "guest appearance" by the man who would go on to win both the nomination and the election, Barack Obama (Peter Francis James). In this scene, and despite all the discord we have witnessed between Bill and Hillary, the pair transforms in a flash into a singular dynamo that derives from a lifetime of conjoined ambition and political gamesmanship. It is an astonishing metamorphosis into oneness that is used for political advantage. Whatever Bill has done to destroy their married life, both snap into position and play their collective hand in unity. Call it the "Billary Effect," and watch in awe as it unfolds.
Through much of the play, both of the Clintons are dressed in costume designer Rita Ryack's casually unchic clothing. Hillary wears a pair of uncool sweat pants, a tattered sweater, and floppy slippers. It's only when Obama is on his way over that she changes into something more professional looking, does her makeup, fixes her hair. Meanwhile, Bill is content to hang around through it all wearing skimpy nylon running shorts, a T-shirt, and a windbreaker. It's all very telling. Guys can get away with things that women cannot.
Hnath actually began writing this play in the year it takes place, and it has had several productions before this one. He had in mind that election cycle, and not the shockwave of the 2016 election. Yet ever-shifting circumstances make Hillary and Clinton even more relevant to the here and now, especially with respect to what it means to be a woman in politics. While several women are in the running for the democratic nomination to take on Mr. Trump in the 2020 election, the names we are hearing more often at the moment are those of Messrs. Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Castro, O'Rourke, and Booker. Hillary's words ring out for all the women who are declared candidates: Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. I am not sure that Hillary would ever say, like Henry Clay did back in 1839, "I'd rather be right than president." Nevertheless, should one of these women make it all the way, that may very well be her legacy. I wonder if the alternative universe Hillary would agree.