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Theatre in Review: Hillary and Clinton (Golden Theatre)

Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Can this marriage be saved? Better yet, can this marriage be escaped? Or even survived? Perhaps as a warmup for her appearance, next season, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Laurie Metcalf is starring in Hillary and Clinton, another portrait of a marriage as a psychological stalemate. Of course, the characters in Lucas Hnath's play aren't fictional -- or are they? In the opening monologue, Hillary -- you know who I mean -- employs a little pop physics, positing the existence of other galaxies that offer alternate versions of our current reality; the play we are seeing, she suggests, is unfolding in such a doppelganger universe. It's a neat trick that allows Hnath to freely imagine two of the most picked-over, analyzed personalities in recent American history, that supremely dysfunctional, scandal-wracked and obsessively self-reinventing power couple known colloquially as Bill and Hillary. For a quarter of a century, their drama-plagued marriage has been a mirror of society's confused mores, a litmus test of shifting attitudes. Even with them both functionally out of the campaign game, they hover over the political landscape, casting shadows that continue to shape the way we see today's candidates. Certainly, the specter of Hillary keeps Donald Trump up at night; one imagines him stalking the halls of the White House, muttering her name while staring at the portraits of his predecessors, like Richard Nixon in his final days. (Of course, Nixon knew who those predecessors were.)

Given the Clintons' epic, eventful history and the bizarre gallery of characters surrounding them, one might reasonably imagine that a play about them would need to be a Tony Kushner-style multipart epic, each section stretching well into the wee hours. One of Hnath's most admirable achievements is in finding a single dramatic situation that reveals a distilled version of the Clintons' marriage in all its presumed conflicts and ambivalences. It's an audacious act of imagination: How many other living, still-active historical figures have been subjected to this sort of close analysis? If this is an alternate history, it's an extraordinarily convincing one.

Hillary and Clinton zeros in on a night in New Hampshire in 2008 that, in Hnath's view, marks the beginning of the end for Hillary's presidential ambitions. Going into the campaign, the scenario was set in stone, with Hillary on a glide path to Inauguration Day. Instead, the disruptive force of Barack Obama has put her plans in jeopardy. To her horror, she came in third in the Iowa caucus; now, in New Hampshire for the first full-out primary, she is lagging in the; worse, she is running out of money, and, she notes, "the rich don't like people with the loser look." (Metcalf, elegantly extending a hand, circles her face as if to emphasize the point that she now has that dreaded look.) Even worse, Mark, her campaign manager (a version of Mark Penn, Hillary's longtime loyalist), says that the Obama camp has "made an offer. They said if you pull out now, as in, if you let the next two states go, a sort of slow fade out of the race, followed by dropping out entirely, then when he gets the nomination, he'd make you his running mate." Staring at his stunned boss, he adds, "His team wouldn't be making you this offer unless they were scared of you. This is desperate, this is a Hail Mary -- I think you should be encouraged by that."I'm not," she replies in a tone that has the finality of a tractor flattening the tiniest of molehills.

Against Mark's advice, Hillary has sent for Bill, who has been languishing at home, attending to his foundation and resentfully enduring a solo Thanksgiving. Mark is unhappy, and not without cause: Bill's appearance kicks off an evening of scheming, recriminations, and furious debates, as he and Hillary increasingly work at cross-purposes. Because the title characters are played by Metcalf and John Lithgow, each round of the emotional prizefight that follows bristles with malice and the crackle of two opposing temperaments unable to stop provoking each other.

Whether slumping in a doorway, looking sullen and resentful; insolently munching on a slice of pizza, gleefully certain that he has the upper hand; or delicately stepping over his spouse, who has temporarily thrown herself on the floor, Lithgow's Bill has the uncanny ability to make any situation all about him. Furious that he has been exiled from his wife's campaign, he insists that only he can be her savior. He has little use for Hillary's policy wonkery and her steely, controlled manner. "People don't vote with their brains," he insists. "It's never not emotional." It is the day after the famous (or notorious) campaign eventb when Hillary briefly teared up, causing a wave of speculation in the press that she had "found her voice." Hillary is appalled at the idea, but Bill has already gone in for the kill. Simultaneously critiquing her campaign style and baring his fury as a spouse, he says, "Yes, yes. You're better than everyone, and you act like it all the time, and it makes people feel like shit. People don't like people who make them feel like shit." "How about if 'people' grow the fuck up?" replies Hillary, incensed.

Thoroughly self-possessed even when enraged, Metcalf's Hillary casts a cold eye on the men around her and, not unreasonably, finds them all wanting. Even when facing the fact that her campaign is quite possibly doomed, she demonstrates a typically Midwestern stoicism. "I don't cry," she says. "I keep it together. No matter what, I keep it together." She is also a master counterpuncher. Aiming directly at Bill's weakest spot, she accuses him of not wanting her to win the election, for fear of being eclipsed by her. Alluding to the Monica Lewinsky fracas, she says that most people "actually can't name one thing that you did in office that wasn't that 'one thing.' And if you ask them what they liked about you, what made you a good president -- all that's left, all that's remembered, is your personality." Putting the knife in extra deep, she adds that Mark's polling suggests that if she really wants to win, she needs to get a divorce.

Of course, divorce isn't in the offing, and Hnath's cleverly plotted play is designed to show that whatever choice made by these two, they can't help thwarting each other. When not squabbling, Hillary turns to Bill for some much-needed financial aid. He is reluctant to help, and when he does, it has toxic unintended side effects. Bill also speaks out about Obama without clearing his remarks with the campaign, unleashing a cascade of unintended events. Indeed, Bill is left to eloquently sum up their mutual dilemma: "You're all I have," he tells Hillary. "But I have you, you're left with nothing."

It goes without saying that Lithgow and Metcalf are a superbly fraught and mutually frustrated pair, rooting around in the darker corners of an alliance that often seems to have the contours of a cage. The director Joe Mantello orchestrates their warfare with skill, especially when the conversation turns to the exchange of no-holds-barred truths. Mantello has allowed Zak Orth, as Mark, to indulge in a certain amount of fussing and twitching, but Peter Francis James is first-rate as a smiling, canny, and withholding Obama, is thrust, uncomfortably, into the Bill --Hillary fray, before delivering a definitive blow against his rival.

Perhaps as an extension of the alternative-universe concept, the production design is also oddly anonymous. Chloe Lamford's furniture-free hotel room is, I suppose, meant to represent a kind of arena, but it is lacking in character or definition. Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Rita Ryack's costumes are perfectly fine without being especially distinctive. Leon Rothenberg's sound design is confined to a few bits when Hillary addresses the audience using a handheld mic and an atmospheric effect near the end.

Whatever the occasional flaws of this production, however, Hillary and Clinton, retains a strange currency. Rather than coming off as a blast from the recent past, it seems all too pertinent in an election cycle in which questions of likability, policy heft, and the electability of female and minority candidates make up so many burning questions. That's the thing about tenacious lovers of the spotlight like Bill and Hillary: Even when they go away, they don't really go away. --David Barbour

(7 May 2019)

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