“Can I touch you?” John Lithgow’s Bill asks Laurie Metcalf’s Hillary.
If looks could kill, the audience for Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” at Broadway’s Golden Theatre would be watching Lithgow vaporize, right there in front of their eyes.
What greater enigma — what more compelling paradox — in the dying years of the 20th Century could have eclipsed that of William Jefferson and Hillary Rodham Clinton?
Both were — are — inestimably smart. But there the similarities seemed to end.
Bill was a philanderer but elected (twice) due to his incomparable likability. His wife had intelligence and discipline where her husband had insatiable appetites for fast food and women, but she was never able to radiate his warmth. And thus, in one of the weirdest-ever quirks of America’s sexist celebrity system of presidential politics, America never liked Hillary as much as it liked Bill.
And thanks to Bill’s Monica Lewinsky affair, Hillary found herself trapped in a paradox. Had she divorced him, she’d likely have torpedoed her own political career. That might not be true now, but the Clintons did not rule in the now. They peaked before the Great Reckoning. And yet, even back then, everyone knew that by so famously standing by her badly behaving man, she was, as it is wisely observed in Hnath’s black Broadway comedy, forever attaching herself to “the stench of him.”
She was, this very clever, funny and deceptively complex play observes, damned to failure either way. And in Joe Mantello’s production, Metcalf’s droll Hillary, dry as the sand on Martha’s Vineyard, is well aware of the hand she has been dealt. Meanwhile, Lithgow plays Bill as a man who learned long ago to compartmentalize.
Just as long as there is pizza.
Most dramas of presidential politics are portentous epics: Brian Cranston, Lin-Manuel Miranda, that kind of thing. By those standards, “Hillary and Clinton” is like an absurdist soupçon, an extended “SNL” sketch, a whimsical look at one of the most crucial moments in the political life of HRC: when, struggling in the 2008 primaries against a young upstart named Barack Obama, she had to decide whether or not to Call in Bill.
A Hobson’s choice, the play is saying. She couldn’t win without calling him. Yet once she took that leap, she was toast. And the best part of Metcalf’s performance is reactive rather than demonstrative. She lets you know how much her character both knows and cares. And how powerless she is to change anything.
Aside from Bill and Hillary, Hnath’s little minuet of thwarted ambition also includes Mark (Zak Orth), the campaign manager whose main job is to repeat Do Not Let Bill Come to New Hampshire, all the while knowing that she will. And, of course, Barack (Peter Francis James), in this play a masterful political player with an innate understanding of the delicate art of restraint. He knows he is the junior talent. But all he has to do is let the maximalist Clintons (plural) implode, and he’ll be on top. It’s not a bad summation of what really happened in 2008.
So just because Hnath’s genre is different doesn’t mean his work is less substantial. If you’re bringing up the Clintons — who are still very much around — on the Broadway stage, it’s incumbent on you to draw upon larger questions — of marriage, of pragmatism, of why the heck Bill got away with so much.
I’ve liked this play since I first saw its premiere in Chicago — and, in Metcalf and Lithgow, it now has two in-sync old pros, demonstrably aware of the capriciousness of fame and power.
Of course, this is not a charitable portrait of two dedicated public servants. Both appear without their pants at times — Hnath reduces them to hotel room obsessives, navigating their greatest challenge.