Monday, April 29, 2019

224 (2018-2019): Review: HILLARY AND CLINTON (seen April 27, 2019)

"The Best Woman"

If I’m any example, thousands of theatregoers—especially progressive-leaning political junkies—must have begun salivating at the news that a play called Hillary and Clinton was coming to Broadway. (It had premiered in Chicago in 2016.)

Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
What a great idea! Two of the most colorful public figures of our time, still part of our daily discourse, and with enough personal and political mishegoss to drive a TV series for years, were going to be packed into the framework of a single play, as if that were even possible.

When it was announced that they’d be played by two of our foremost Broadway stars, Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, the box-office polling must have leaped exponentially.
John Lithgow, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Of course, all would be contingent on what aspect of the Clintons’ lives rising playwright Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2, Red Speedo, The Christians). would examine, and how well he’d carry it off. With so much to choose from, he’s zeroed in on the early stages of Hillary’s 2008 primary campaign opposite Barack Obama, just after she’s come in third in Iowa, and imagined what might have been going on between the Clintons at this delicate moment. (The play was written in 2008, soon after the events depicted.) Despite the presumed instability of their marriage, the Clintons' mutual interests couldn’t have been more tightly conjoined.
Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
It’s certainly a prime time in the ongoing Clinton saga but events since then have so surpassed these on the historical and emotional scale that a look back at 2008 seems rather quaint. Still, it definitely contains volatile dramatic ingredients, such as Hillary’s strategy arguments with Mark (Zak Orth), her campaign manager (inspired by Mark Penn?); her fluctuating interest and disinterest in Bill’s advice, of which Mark wants no part; and her bargaining with Barack (Peter Francis James), as he’s called, regarding who might be the other’s running mate.

Nonetheless, Hillary and Clinton sometimes seems more like a domestic comedy in the Adam’s Rib or State of the Union vein than a surgical examination of historical machinations. You won’t learn anything new but you’ll appreciate viewing it as it happens.

Not that Hillary and Clinton isn’t both fun and interesting, even if Hnath takes pains to insure we don’t accept what we’re seeing as authentic fly-on-the-wall testimony to what transpired. He has Hillary enter very casually, mic in hand, and explain directly to us, after flipping a coin several times, that an infinity of earths exist, some with people just like us, and including events similar, if not exactly the same, as those experienced on our earth. 

On such an earth, for example, Hillary might have won in 2008. Hnath’s play, then, is about a Hillary and Clinton in a parallel universe, regardless of nearly everything talked about sounding awfully close to what we know, both fact and rumor.
Laurie Metcalf, Zak Orth. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Metcalf’s brunette Hillary, decidedly unglamorous, makes no attempt to physically resemble the one we know, nor does Lithgow, tall and white-haired as he may be, use any familiar Bill mannerisms; no lip biting or Arkansas drawl, I’m afraid. As costumed by Rita Ryack, she flops around in comfy clothes, switching from slippers and sweatpants to a red, cable-knit turtleneck, not quite long enough to hide her white panties, before finally donning tan slacks. He’s similarly casual, wearing an old windbreaker over a faded polo shirt, along with running shorts, white socks, and deck shoes.
Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t automatically impose the real Hillary and Bill over those of the actors, a quite easy process. On the other hand, James’s Barack is a close-enough ringer for 44, albeit a bit older and more full-bodied. Mark, for his part, is an ordinary, bearded, bespectacled schlub, his belly too big to keep his shirt in his pants.

As if to underline the situation’s universality, Chloe Lamford’s New Hampshire hotel room set, outlined in thin, neon stripes that occasionally come on (lighting by Hugh Vanstock), is a sleek, empty box, its side walls and ceiling white, the upstage wall black, and the sole furnishings a white, leather, rolling desk chair and a small refrigerator. There are two doors, one to the hallway, the other to the inner rooms. Sitting or lying on the floor isn’t out of the question, even for a presidential  campaigner.

Hnath’s snappy, frequently profane, dialogue reveals both the affection and tension between the Clintons (including the strong possibility of divorce). We witness Bill’s loneliness and need to stick his two cents in despite Mark’s wish to get him and his advice the hell away; the campaign’s need for money; Bill’s ability to get it (and the consequent problems it causes); the campaign’s current status; Bill’s toxic past yet persistent popularity; and discussions about how to improve Hillary’s personal appeal.

Much will strike a nostalgic bell for those who recall some of the details, like how well it was received when a tear seemed to form in her eye while delivering a speech to a women’s luncheon. Nonetheless, she has a hard time believing that her policies rather than her personality will turn the tide. She even questions whether that tear ever did well up. 

Some stuff stings, as when the question of what people will remember of the Clintons when they’re dead reminds Bill of how his achievements have been overshadowed by his peccadilloes. And the scene when the Clintons unite to confront Barack is riveting.
Peter Francis James, Laurie Metcalf. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Hillary is both vulnerable and defiant, and makes a big point of asking Bill—who wants to be her attack dog—to stay out of the picture so she’s not considered a woman who needed her husband’s help to win her job. The byplay inspired by their rivalry and their confrontations with Mark, whom Bill wants fired, is always agile, and raises the question of what a woman must do to gain ascendancy in the political arena. A big laugh comes when Bill confronts Mark by stepping over the body of Hillary, sprawled out on the floor.
Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow.
Metcalf and Lithgow give Hillary and Bill just the right amount of vivacity and bite you’d hope for, James is a solid stand-in for Barack, and Orth is perfectly harried as the campaign manager.

Joe Mantello’s lively direction keeps things hopping throughout the intermissionless 90 minutes of what is principally amusing because the two characters at the heart of its domestic tit for tats are who they are and also because we’re being given the chance to believe that something like what we’re hearing may actually have happened in our own alternate universe. Moreover, there’s enough topicality to remind us of what the current crop of female candidates may be experiencing. Similarly pertinent is the issue of electability, including whether it's better for a candidate to be well known or little known. 

If Hillary and Clinton’s mix of domestic squabbling and political intrigue during a long-past primary can glue your eyeballs to the stage, I can only imagine what’s in store when someone—Hnath or otherwise—gives us, what, Hillary and Trump? But only in this universe, please God, after Trump has been dumped.

John Golden Theatre
262 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run