By: Isa Goldberg
April 24, 2019: Playwright, Lucas Hnath has a penchant for mining material from the past. His Tony Award-winning play A Doll’s House, Part 2 takes place where Ibsen’s tale of a liberated woman takes off – after Nora has left her husband.
His new play, starring Laurie Metcalf, (Nora, in a Doll’s Hourse Part II), also examines the role of gender in society. Here, Metcalf portrays Hillary at the New Hampshire primary in 2008. As we know, she’s running against Obama, in her bid to become the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. No surprises here. She’s losing.
The universe of the play is a sterile white cube that serves as Hillary’s hotel suite. It’s she who introduces the 90-minute drama, and narrates the play’s premise standing at a microphone. There is a sense in which action and dialogue are objectified.
Addressing her failing campaign, she engages her campaign manager, Mark (Zak Orth) and her husband, Bill (John Lithgow) with the issue of her public persona. “Cold, stubborn, guarded,” Hillary quips from popular commentary. “It’s like I’m trying to play like I’m perfect.”
Hearing it now reminds us, for instance, that women, even Presidential candidates, are not looked at it in the same way men are in politics. The concern about public presence, affect, and style are not discussed in those kind of personal terms when we talk about men. More importantly, the perception of Hillary as defensive and guarded seems particularly ironic since her personal life, right down to her bedroom, had been openly displayed long before she ran for the Presidency. There is no reasonable cause to challenge her when it’s already out there.
That her bedroom (Designer, Chloe Lamford) now looks white washed is the public’s choice. A great deal had been openly, publicly known about Bill’s dalliances, and Hillary’s feelings vis a vis her husband’s infidelities.
It’s the degradation that comes into focus here. “I’m the woman who used her husband to get into politics. That’s why I let my husband screw around,” she notes about the public mockery that surrounds her. But Hillary, in the context of Hnath’s play, is no more the source of the criticisms hurled at her, than the victims of the Salem witch trials, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, were guilty of the crimes of which they had been accused. To be clear, Miller used that metaphor to speak out against the McCarthy hearings of his time.
And Metcalf prevails with gravitas in portraying this commanding, accomplished woman simply, with no extraordinary measures. Despairing that she’ll lose the primary, she calls her husband and asks him to come to New Hampshire to be with her. Grabbing a mini vodka from the frig, she tosses it into a bottle of Snapple, and swigs down the rest.
Metcalf, on the stage throughout the entire production, never loses her cool, raises her voice, or fails to keep us wrapped in her easy natural presence. Her slippers, and fleece (Designer, Rita Ryack) have a real New Hampshire style. And her demeanor is easy; she gets roughed up without crowing about it. As Hillary, Metcalf takes charge because that is who she is. For all the criticism of her public persona, it’s ironic that she appears so understated and at ease with herself here.
Helmed by Joe Mantello, the production moves smoothly and naturally in spite of the fact that there it’s all talk, no action. There really isn’t any to take.
As Bill, Lithgow arrives in shorts and a sweatshirt. Peter Francis James’ Obama is a fiercely confident presence, who possesses the leverage to destroy Hillary. Both men explore the shadows – the actual political dirt – which caused Hillary to fail.
As she realizes, “it’s like I’m trying to stare at the back of my own head, trying to see something that I just can’t see, but if I could catch a glimpse of it, then I would know what to do.” That is the experience of being women, we who often have no one else to stand on, other than ourselves.
Hillary and Clinton ***1/2
The John Golden Theatre
252 West 45 Street, NYC
Through July 21, 2019
Photography: Julieta Cervantes