To say our audience is engaged is minimization of overt, galvanized reaction. Vocal expressions of shock, surprise, approval and condemnation are constant. Intermittent applause erupts. In another era, vegetables would’ve been employed. Overall reaction, like state voting in 2016, signals unqualified, vociferous support of Hillary.
The play is bookended by explanations of the “alternative universe” in which we find ourselves – a kind of galaxy far, far away. Like the string theory, its premise is simultaneous history. This could have happened, may have happened, might be happening. (The device of addressing audience is off-putting.) Actors were instructed not to emulate Hillary and Bill Clinton. In fact, the only singularly obvious emulation comes from a gesture by this version of Barak Obama.
It’s 2008, the eve of the New Hampshire primary. Hillary (Laurie Metcalf) is wired, exhausted, fatalistic. Polls have her losing big. Familiar objections to the style/persona many think kept Clinton from higher office are raised. Even Bill calls her “stiff, wooden.” Campaign manager Mark (Zak Orth) reassures the candidate. He also warns her in no uncertain terms not to involve husband Bill (John Lithgow), whom he considers toxic.
In what may either be the first moment of codependent behavior, motivation for securing an infusion of much needing funding (from her husband’s private reserve), or both, Hillary goes against advice. Bill arrives at her request. The chip on her shoulder would bring others to their knees. It’s clear she hasn’t forgiven sexual indiscretions. Catch-up is awkward. He’s bored and needy. A hangdog “Can I-touch you?” is poignant. They hug. Both of them. Not just Bill.
Apparently candidate Obama (Peter Francis James) has offered Hillary the second slot if she’ll back off. (A poor reflection of him even as theory.) Desperate, she’s considering it with an assumption that the next election might then be hers. Absolutely not, says Mark. Bill concurs. Needless to say, the ex-president has his own ideas on how to stem the tide. First, get rid of Mark, then do what I say.
While Mark tells his boss, “Being human is overrated,” Bill wants her to “Let it all hang out.” “I’m not interested in playing to the lowest common denominator,” she snaps back. “How about people grow the fuck up?!” The audience unfortunately not indicative of America) cheers. Bill manages to fly beneath campaign radar and, in conjunction with inadvertent behavior of her own, helps to change Hillary’s image. His wife is outraged.
The Clintons are, inescapably, an old married couple. History spouts like bile. They take professional and personal potshots at one another. Competitiveness foments. Yet we see the bond. Despite venom, neither is without respect and affection for the other. At one point, Bill suggests his wife divorce him in order to survive politically. (It’s impossible not to conjecture what would’ve happened had she done so.) She ignores him. Dynamics have been compared to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.
Lucas Hnath’s play was written in 2008 before the ensuing election debacle. It’s been only slightly amended, but lands more emphatically for events that followed. An element of stupefaction remains in most of our lives. I couldn’t help but recall a Lanford Wilson character who, spending the night in the bedroom of a young butterfly collector, woke to the horror of flapping. The pinioned insects were still alive.
The piece is provocative and darkly humorous. Stressing these are ordinary people works partially. Sterling performance makes up the other portion.
Laurie Metcalf, one of the first ladies of America Theater, offers another stubborn, gutsy, pregnable portrait we never doubt for a moment. Every move and expression counts. Sighs and moans have rarely been so effectively expressive. Having collapsed on the floor, merely moving an arm over her eyes makes a difference.
John Lithgow has always been skilled with present silence. This character is abashed by experience, but not fully willing to exit the arena. He seems to lack self awareness. The actor delivers.
Zak Orth (Mark) is a model of sincerity, frustration and apoplectic timing
Peter Francis James’ Obama is so reserved as to seem without character. The intended choice pales in contrast to others’ animation.
Director Joe Mantello has only a single chair, a fridge – Hillary pours a tiny bottle of hotel liquor into her Snapple, the remains of a meal tray, and a pizza with which to engineer small business, yet the actors are never less than absorbing. Differences between Mark’s gestures, Hillary’s specific body language and Bill’s illusive passivity are telling. Pacing is adroit.
Chloe Lamford’s Set screams alternate universe, but does nothing to put us in time and place.
Costumes by Rita Ryack have a strong point of view one assumes the director promoted. Hillary is not casual, she’s a mess. Bill’s gym shorts make him oblivious and ensure discomfort.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Joe Mantello
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