For Hnath, ‘Hillary and Clinton’ Are a, If Not the, Real Thing

Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow cannonade a gratifying 90-minute, intermissionless play.

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John Lithgow, Laurie Metcalf in "Hillary and Clinton." Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Since playwright Lucas Hnath doesn’t like to repeat himself, audiences don’t know what they’re in for when seeing a new work from him. His A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt  Disney, for instance, couldn’t be more different from his Tony-winning A Doll’s House, Part 2. But hold the phone. Maybe he is predictable, or at least consistent, if we can assume that from one play to the next he likes to fool around with recognizable entities.

He’s doing it again, after all, with Hillary and Clinton. Entering the theater, a person might jump to the conclusion that now Hnath’s found a way to kid around with the Clintons. Or it could be that that’s exactly what Hnath wants us to think when what he’s really about to do is to up-end our expectations by creating characters named Hillary and Bill Clinton who are not the Hillary and Bill Clinton that we have known for several decades now.

Sly character that he is, he’s doing both.

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Even before the house lights dim, Laurie Metcalf, who co-stars with John Lithgow, comes out and chats with the audience about flipping coins. She conjectures about the number of times a series of flips (heads, heads, heads, tails, heads) might repeat an infinite number of flips. Then she switches to the number of times that, in an infinite universe, there might be similar planets containing inhabitants who are like, but not necessarily the same as, Hillary and Bill Clinton.

And then, presto-chango, Hnath puts forth a play featuring a Hillary and Bill Clinton who are not, of course, Hillary and Bill Clinton, but are Hillary and Bill Clinton. And with that, Metcalf becomes a, if not the Hillary Clinton, as she steps into Chloe Lamford’s white-box set that is bordered by (presumably) Hugh Vanstone’s neon lights, and containing little else but a swivel chair.

This Hillary Clinton, not entirely unlike the Hillary Clinton, is in a New Hampshire hotel suite during the 2008 presidential primaries. She’s just lost Iowa, and she expects to lose here, too — as she insists to her campaign manager, Mark (the terrific Zak Orth). The coincidences between this Hillary Clinton’s 2008 New Hampshire predicament and the Hillary Clinton’s 2008 New Hampshire predicament are, indeed, kind of remarkable.

Mark, having attempted to bolster Hillary’s spirits (a large part of his job). leaves the living room of the suite but not before making her promise she won’t phone Bill for assistance. He has been banned from helping out the campaign for any number of realpolitik reasons. After swearing that she won’t contact Bill Clinton, she does just that.

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Lithgow’s Bill Clinton — who is, isn’t and is the Bill Clinton — arrives in nondescript street clothes to match Hillary’s (courtesy of costume designer Rita Ryack). Thus begins Hnath’s probe into what we’ve long wondered: What are or were the Clintons connubial behaviors and understandings behind closed doors? This is the portrait of any troubled marriage. It is also very much a portrait of a marriage of two experienced politicians who are a Hillary and Bill Clinton, but also an extremely specific portrait of the the Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Hnath’s play, in this respect, can be little more than guesswork. But it registers as mighty persuasive while presenting Hillary and Bill Clinton as quarreling when she invites him to help her fill the empty campaign chest. As he sticks around for the next few days (often in his skivvies), they wrangle over who deserves credit for the New Hampshire win. He claims the credit because he encouraged her to open up, such as when she cried at a campaign stop. (The parallels on this parallel planet are getting more remarkable, aren’t they?)

In a particularly heady twist, an otherworldly Barack Obama (Peter Francis James, suave as can be) offers Hillary a deal: If she’ll fade out of the contest, he promise to name her to the ticket as vice president. She accepts before the New Hampshire win, and now he sees that win as a betrayal. He shows up to confront her, and they play a cat-and-mouse game: If he’ll face out of the contest, she’ll head the ticket with him as prospective veep. This is Hnath’s kind of tongue-in-cheek merriment.

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Throughout, Metcalf and Lithgow get in their kicks as director Joe Mantello hands them free rein to flaunt their inestimable wares. The play’s advertising slogan — “primarily a comedy” — allows each of them to go full-throttle on the anger and occasional conciliatory moments when the embers of their marriage, which is clearly based on love, can glow. Metcalf and Lithgow are also swell when recriminations are tossed around like medicine balls. (Is there any mention, for example, of Bill’s dalliances, including anything that might have gone on under his desk in the Oval Office? Hmmmm, what do you think?)

The final result is that Hnath has cannonaded a gratifying 90-minute, intermissionless play. Upon leaving, audience may ask themselves, or each other, a few pressing questions: Will the Hillary and Bill Clinton of our planet, eager theatergoers themselves, attend Hillary and Clinton? If so, will they like it? Will they be offended, or will they decide that the Hillary and Bill Clinton of whom Hnath has dreamed are no more than a Hillary and Bill Clinton from another planet who have nothing to do with the Hillary and Bill Clinton from this one?

This is the third straight year that Metcalf has graced Broadway, copping the Tony Award two years ago for A Doll’s House, Part 2 and nominated last year for the revival of Three Tall Women. She’s already announced to attack more Edward Albee next year as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Some say she’s looking to take on the long unclaimed title of First Lady of the American Theater. If that position were an elected one, I wonder which Hillary and Bill Clinton would vote for her?