Hillary and Clinton Speculates on What Went Down Behind the Scenes in 2008
Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow star as America's most talked-about first couple in playwright Lucas Hnath's return to Broadway.
Hillary and Clinton is set firmly in 2008 — the first time Hillary made a bid for president and was beaten out for the Democratic nomination by Barack Obama in a protracted series of primaries. There's no mention of 2016, or Donald Trump, or even any subtle prophecies of a dystopian future. There is, however, a brief lecture about the multiverse, delivered at the top of the show by the great Laurie Metcalf. Before stepping into Hillary's shoes, she introduces us to a world containing something that looks a lot like the version of 2008 America we all lived through, but is actually just a very similar version in which very similar events are unfolding. In this universe, could the outcome at least be different? That's a nice thought, but don't get your hopes too high.
Playwright Lucas Hnath, who ushered Metcalf to her first Tony win in 2017 with A Doll's House, Part 2, ends up taking less theatrical advantage of his parallel-universe conceit than one would hope for in a play that speculates about life with the Clintons. Hnath gives himself a lot of rope, and then instead of using it, makes a concerted effort to avoid hanging himself by employing some surprisingly conservative (pun intended) conjectures.
Directed by Joe Mantello (who directed Metcalf to her second Tony win last year in Three Tall Women), the events of the play take place just before and just after Hillary's surprise win in the New Hampshire primary. We all remember that moment as her big "comeback," but as she prepares for a career-ending loss, we see Hillary recruit the help of her charismatic husband, Bill (John Lithgow), despite objections by her chief strategist Mark Penn (Zak Orth). Meanwhile, she deflects requests from the Obama campaign to gracefully bow out of the race with the promise of a running-mate position. She hopes Bill's political connections will give her the infusion of funds she needs to stay in the race. But Bill, having been kicked off his wife's campaign before, sees this as his own "comeback" and wants to be more to the cause than just an ATM. Cue the battle of supremacy we've always imagined rages in the Clinton household.
Metcalf and Lithgow are entertaining sparring partners — Metcalf maternally soothing the whims of her petulant husband while Lithgow finds that inexplicable Clinton charm in Bill's irrepressible giddiness for the campaign trail. One moment they're husband and wife, the next they're parent and child — and connecting these two poles of the Bill-and-Hillary dynamic is a convoluted swirl of tenderness, dependence, and resignation.
For all those wondering — yes, Hnath delves into the Clintons' sordid marital history, with Hillary wondering whether her political career would have benefited from a divorce while vindictively throwing daggers at Bill's scandal-ridden presidency. "That general public you're so fond of," she says. "They can't name one thing that you did in office that wasn't that one thing." It's a cleansing moment for the Hillary fans in the audience to watch her declare, before God and country, that her hypothetical presidency would far outshine her husband's — and most anyone's, for that matter.
Patrons of Hillary and Clinton are probably among Broadway's most self-selecting, vocally laying all their emotional and political baggage in the aisles and preparing to be validated for the next 90 minutes. Every time Metcalf's Hillary bemoans America's lack of interest in her sterling qualifications, instead preferring the rarer version of herself that tears up in front of a crowd (the woman is her own multiverse), we can nod in enthusiastic agreement and take comfort in the knowledge that we knew better. A little theatrical venting isn't totally uncalled for — if only Hnath's play were more than just astute and elegantly written voyeurism (political junkies will get a kick out of seeing Hillary negotiate with Barack Obama, played by Peter Francis James, the day after her New Hampshire victory).
Mercifully, Hillary and Clinton echoes the minimalism of A Doll's House, Part 2, permitting the actors to retain their natural hairstyles and speaking voices (with the slight exception of James, who briefly assumes the Obama cadence), and setting every scene in a bare room that functions as a hotel suite (Chloe Lamford designed the blank canvas of a set). Perhaps for the first time ever in a political context, the focus is the verbal exchange, not personas…or clothing (Metcalf walks pant-less around the stage for a large chunk of time, but Rita Ryack otherwise designs the costumes). It is a bit of a letdown, though, when we enter the theater hoping for an exciting shift in perspective, and leave with just another reminder that Hillary will never be president.