If you accept that the universe is infinite, you likely also accept that there are an untold number of Earths like ours floating in space, where similar people with similar names go out and work toward goals similar to ours. In Lucas Hnath's new play Hillary and Clinton, the concept of a world that is almost-but-not-quite ours is centered around a woman named Hillary Clinton, who is on the brink of losing the 2008 Democratic Primaries, and her worn-down horndog of a husband, Bill.
In the first moments of Hillary and Clinton, Hillary (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) stands next to a ghostlight on a deconstructed set, and addresses the audience. She suggests that we are not watching a re-creation of the 2008 New Hampshire Primaries, but a fictionalized story set on one of those multiple alternate Earths. The divergences are immediately apparent: Hillary is African-American, and Bill (John Apicella) has no trace of an Arkansas accent. But there are plenty of similarities: Hillary's strategist, Mark (Keith Kupferer), is surely based on Mark Penn, a pollster first for Bill Clinton, then for Hillary in 2008. Just like the real-world equivalent, the Mark of Hillary and Clinton advises Hillary to stay tough and avoid apologies, while Bill counsels in favor of vulnerability and human connection. Both men stake their claim on Hillary's campaign, and as the night continues, all three minds and egos try and fail to find consensus.
Given that it's only April and we're all already fighting election fatigue, Bruce is fighting an uphill battle by playing a fictionalized woman that much of her audience may not want to think about before the play begins. And unfortunately, Hnath's script offers few chances to peel back Hillary's battle armor — even her most vulnerable moment comes in the form of a detached, retrospective monologue about guarding her emotions in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Apicella has not mastered the real Bill's knack for garnering sympathy while behaving badly, and his moments of vulnerability seem more infantile than intimate. As Mark, Kupferer is perfectly hoarse and limp, effectively showing a man at the end of his rope.
Directed by Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, Hillary and Clinton is wholly minimalist, from Hnath's sparse script, to the measured delivery of the actors, to William Boles' set design, which is an empty, white-on-black affair that relies on the audience's imagination to fill in the details of Clinton's New Hampshire hotel room. We see actors walking to the onstage door and waiting for their marks. Hillary holds and smokes a cigarette that never burns down. The carefully staged theatrical artifice doesn't quite reflect the political artifice of the script — instead, the whole thing feels empty.
It is only toward the end of the play, when Hillary's opponent, the Other Guy (Juan Francisco Villa, with all the pathos and promise of Barack Obama circa 2008) appears, that Hillary and Clinton offers any insight into the political machine, or the people who run it. The two Democratic hopefuls connect over a shared confession that neither candidate knows if they really want to be President. As the play concludes, the focus shifts to exploring the nuances of Hillary and Bill. But after 80 minutes of hiding behind political contrivance, it's too little humanity too late in the political game.
- Barack Obama
- Bill Clinton
- Hillary Clinton
- Lucas Hnath
- Victory Gardens Theater
- Chay Yew
- Hillary and Clinton
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