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A CurtainUp Review
Hillary and Clinton
By Elyse Sommer
Now the very talented Mr. Hnath has given us another play about a successful woman: Hillary Rodham Clinton— lawyer, senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. Like Nora, she too has had a loving but problematic marriage which makes Hillary and Clinton something of a sequel to Hnath's terrific sequel to Ibsen's drama.
The Ibsen inspired drama was set fifteen years after that climactic door slamming exit. The idea for Hillary and Clinton was triggered by Hillary's 2008 bid for the top our country's top job. This portrait of a marriage based on the Clinton's personal and political history is set during a pivotal moment of that campaign.
Until A Doll's House Part 2, it was strictly up to audiences at Ibsen's still often produced play to wonder what happened to Nora after that door slam. In Hillary and Clinton we know from the get-go how Hillary fare in that campaign and what has happened since. The star-powered production now at Broadway's Golden Theatre offers no especially new and revelatory insights into how being married to Bill Clinton almost made it possible, and yet impossible for Hillary Clinton to become our first female president. Since Hnath's fantasy is semi-realistic anyone who follows the news is likely to see it as a rehash of much covered territory.
And yet since the play's 2016 production in Chicago, this play has become more than a clever mini-portrait of a famous political marriage. That's not because of any major script tweaks for this production, but because the ripple effect of the Clintons' personal and political failures somehow imbues what we see with the elements of a universal tragedy.
Though the unintended tragic overtones do give Hillary and Clinton a sharper and more relevant edge, it's not as original and compelling as A Dolls House Part 2
— or for that matter quite as fresh and original as his earlier plays, The Christians and Red Speedo.
That's not to say that the 90 minutes spent with the semi-fictionalized Clintons are ever boring. How could they be with Laurie Metcalf, who also played Nora, as truly mesmerizing Hillary. With John Lithgow, another thespian treasure, as Bill Vlinton, this is guaranteed to be fun to watch.
While these fine actors are what makes the less than perfect Hillary and Clinton worth seeing, The play has other assets. It's expertly directed by Joe Mantello who also helmed The Other Place which, thanks to another bravura Metcalf performance, moved from Off Broadway to Broadway. And Hnath's script does have its moments of wit and poignancy.
All three scenes that follow that prologue, take place in a New Hampshire hotel room The scenario following that prologue Since the playwright like the audience, never met the Clintons he needed a device to free him to invent his might-have-happened scenario. That device is a prologue in which Ms. Metcalf breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience that what they are about to see occurs in a possible alternate universe — one in which they'll meet a fictional Hillary who might or might not be elected and she and Bill might or not stay together or get divorced. Metcalf delivers that device with great comic flair, and continues in this prologue mode to announce end of each of the three intermissionless scenes.
Without Metcalf to make that alternate universe device quit e amusing it would be rather clunky. However, besides freeing the playwright to invent dialogue and events, it's also intended to free Metcalf and Lithgow to step into their roles without any attempt to look and sound like the characters they're playing. Only actors as skilled as these two could manage to make us actually see them as the people they're portraying.
All three scenes take place in a New Hampshire hotel room (an aptly nondescript box set without a back by Chloe Lamford, ringed with neon lights by Hugh Vanstone). The firs scene is between Hillary and her campaign manager Mark (Zack Orth making the most of one of two brief appearances) This establishes Hillary's exhaustion and worried state of mind as Barack Obama is increasingly posing a threat to her front runner status. Mark tries to reassure her and his only worry is that she'll call husband Bill, who has been purposely kept out of the campaign to avoid accusations about her riding on his coattails and in deference to feminist disdain for her staying with him even after his womanizing almost did in his presidency.
Of course we wouldn't have a play with both Clintons in its title, if she didn't ignore his advice, as is clear the minute scene one ends and the next begins. This second scene while still focused on the campaign's problems and decisions to be made shifts the focus to the Clinton's personal lives —her continued anger at his infidelities and resentment at the public's view of him as irresistibly charismatic (despite the Monica affair) and her as unlikable. . . his own resentment about being sidelined and limited to charity work. Rita Ryak's pajamas and slippers Hillary wears for most of the play nicely suit her exhausted state. The jogging shorts she's put Lithgow in after his arrival might seem odd to audience members too young to remember his much publicized jogging while he was in the White house.
The third scene involves Hnath's least successful imagined fly on the wall peek at the personal and political decisions facing someone like Hillary Clinton upon joining the race for the gold ring on the political merry go-round. That's a call from Barack Obama wanting to come see her to discuss his offer to make her his running mate. Obama( Peter Francis James) does show up and the interaction between him and Hillary as well as the still present Bill, doesn't ring true or add anything meaningful or necessary.
It's sad that this Hillary's poignant realization that she may be living in one of the universes where even capable women like her don't win. But while the reality of that university sill exists, there are now many strong women determined to change the reality of that universe to a winning one in 2020.If they too fail, they're not going to stop trying.
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Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, Zak Orth Zak Orth, Peter Francis James
Costumes: Rita Ryac
Lighting: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: Leon Rothenberg.
Production Stage Manager:James Fitzsimmons
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Golden Theater 252 West 45th Street
From 3/16/19; openng 4/18/19; closing 6/23/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/19 press performance
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