Hillary and Clinton

“That felt good,” this critic thought after attending a performance of Hillary and Clinton, Lucas Hnath’s topical new play in performances at the Golden Theatre. Almost three years after watching an undeniably qualified woman lose the Presidential election to an undoubtedly unqualified man – following  years of decidedly sexist media coverage brimming with double standards – and remain diplomatic and composed in public, the opportunity to watch her finally give voice to her anger was cathartic, to say the least.

That’s what the character Hillary does in Hillary and Clinton, but it’s not because of Donald Trump. Hnath’s play is set in 2008, and it’s Barack Obama who serves as one of the opponents to Madam Secretary. Her husband is the other.

Hnath’s play opens with Hillary addressing the audience, pondering the idea of multiple realities in the universe with a different outcome existing in each of them. The program notes urge audience members to view the people onstage as characters, not the actual former First Couple. If anyone could pull off that feat, it would be Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, the formidable duo playing the titular characters, but even these two are unable to disassociate from the notoriety that accompanies two of the most well-known names in America.

This play doesn’t glamorize politics: Hillary is and looks exhausted. Her temper is short and she is frustrated. She’s having trouble connecting with the voters, and she’s expected to lose to Obama (played in one surprise scene by Peter Francis James).  The spoken and unspoken patriarchy of the political system is stifling her. And despite the urging of her campaign manager, Josh, played by Zak Orth, she calls her husband for help.
As Bill, Lithgow’s presence precedes him: he looms in the hotel room doorway, his hulking figure’s shadow noticeable before he steps on set. Lithgow brings Bill to life with the same ease and confidence made famous by the real man. If anyone can personify a powerful man’s childish entitlement, it’s Lithgow, who resents having been removed from Hillary’s campaign. (This critic made the same remark when seeing him in King Lear in 2014.) When together onstage, Metcalf and Lithgow are a fiery presence, her still resenting his infidelities and the judgment she is subject to for staying with him. When she unleashes a tirade detailing her rage from years of being sidelined by him, it’s close to terrifying. 

But Hnath’s play is hardly dramatic, staged on a stark white stage furnished to resemble a nondescript motel in New Hampshire, and the actors are clad in casual, everyday wear. Fortunately, Metcalf and Lithgow’s chemistry drives the production, even when the script lags. It’s not clear what the playwright, who thrillingly delved into the female psyche in A Doll’s House Part Twointended to accomplish with this show. Hillary and Clinton first premiered in Chicago in 2016, while Clinton continued to battle Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. Pondering her campaign techniques in 2008 – her faults as a candidate are frequently discussed – compared to 2016, when her success was considered inevitable, may have been intriguing then, but purpose does it serve in 2019. The play does inspire musings on the vexing habit of evaluating a female candidate on her “likability” rather than her knowledge and experience, but there is no shortage of media addressing the subject on a daily basis.

Hnath’s play – rather like some of the vague, indifferent reasons many gave for refusing to vote for Hillary – (“I just don’t trust her,” ring a bell?) – leaves much unspoken and unanswered.  While it is comforting to listen to Hillary unleash her wrath, this critic left the play wishing that had taken place in this reality.

 

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