By: Paulanne Simmons
April 22, 2019: Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton may be only 90 minutes long, yet it provides us with a searing, insightful and sometimes very funny glimpse into the life of a couple that has tantalized so many for the past several decades.
The show, well directed by Joe Mantello, is set in a hotel room, just before and after the 2008 New Hampshire primary, when Hillary (Laurie Metcalf) is convinced her chances of winning the nomination are slipping away. Despite the protests of her campaign manager, Mark (Zak Orth), she phones her husband, former president Bill Clinton (John Lithgow), who has been sidelined and is passing the time impatiently back home. Hillary wants money so she can continue her campaign, but she gets much more than she’d bargained for.
Clinton arrives promptly, suitcase in hand. It’s apparent he intends to stay. He has lots of advice for his wife. She needs to be more human, more vulnerable. People vote with their hearts, not their heads. Of course Hillary (and just about the entire audience) knows what lies heavily on Hillary’s heart. When forced to face the truth, Clinton is touchingly contrite.
There follow episodes in which Mark confronts Clinton with some truths he does not want to hear and Barak Obama (Peter Francis James) offers Hillary a deal she does not want to accept. Orth is excellent as the frustrated political aide, with the perfect balance of defiance and resignation common in loyal functionaries. James, the only actor who seems to be trying to make his character sound and act like the original, achieves his goal, unfortunately to the detriment of a nuanced performance.
But for the most part, this play belongs to Metcalf and Lithgow, who create an appealing and complex portrait of a couple that might be typical in many ways except for the fact that the philandering husband was once president and the long-suffering, over-supportive wife wants to be president. Lithgow is oafish and somehow charming in boxer shorts. Metcalf is a powerhouse, dropping flat on the floor, storming out of the room, tossing around papers that don’t bring good news.
The drama is bookended by a prologue and epilogue in which Hillary sets the story in the context of cosmic forces and parallel universes. One tends to doubt that the very down-to-earth Hillary Clinton ever thinks in such philosophical paradigms. But such flights of fancy are one of theater’s privileges.
Hillary and Clinton runs through July 21, 2019 at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45 Street.
Photography: Julieta Cervantes