Theater review by Adam Feldman
Too soon? Although more than two years have passed since the 2016 presidential election, the wounds that Lucas Hnath picks at in Hillary and Clinton still feel barely scabbed. But this domestic dramedy about the marriage of Hillary and Bill Clinton, a backstage look at the theater of national politics, has a helpful sense of distance built into it. For one thing, it takes place not during the 2016 election campaign—when Hnath’s play premiered in Chicago—but amid the hustle and bustle of the New Hampshire primary for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Also, it takes place in an alternate reality: As the excellent Laurie Metcalf, who plays Hillary, explains in a curtain speech at the start of the show, the play unfolds on some other planet Earth (“like this one but slightly different”), which affords Hnath some latitude in imagining what the Clintons might really be like behind closed hotel-room doors.
In many ways, Hillary and Clinton is about public and private selves, and the difficulty that Hillary has faced in uniting them to perform herself as a person—so unlike, in that regard, her glad-handing husband, depicted skillfully here by John Lithgow. The play, in effect, is a fantasy of closing that gap: of offering, in public, a view of private Hillary. This Hillary is strong but hurt, and understandably frustrated with Bill and his baggage; as played by Metcalf, she is flustered, cutting and profoundly sympathetic.
Like Hnath’s A Doll's House, Part 2, this play is also a portrait of a complicated marriage, loving but not fully satisfying, and of a woman’s attempts to define herself beyond it; her agitation is adeptly contrasted with Bill’s wounded slickness and the smooth confidence of her primary opponent, Barack Obama (Peter Francis James). Directed firmly and dryly by Joe Mantello, Hillary and Clinton is cogent, snappy and perceptive about political and emotional realities. Much of the ground it covers might seem old to those who follow the news, but the play has a looming sense of tragedy today that it couldn’t have had in 2016. Its final line, a shiv to the gut, sends you out hurting into the universe, outside the theater, where we somehow find ourselves now.
John Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Mantello. With Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.