Though Donald J. Trump has been a hovering presence in many New York theatre productions lately -- from Julius Caesar in Central Park to a full-scale Michael Moore polemic The Terms of My Surrender on Broadway in 2017 that campaigned for his downfall -- Hillary Clinton has now beaten him to the punch in having a play not just named after her and her former President husband, but being portrayed with a seriously sympathetic rigour in Hillary and Clinton at Broadway's Golden Theatre.
This is a bold theatrical speculation and uncovering of the Hillary we didn't see, at least on either of her presidential campaign trails -- a woman of surprising vulnerability trying to carve out her own space from the shadow of her forever-charming husband, but wilting in the force-field of his apparent charisma and being frustrated by his own interventions into her story.
Playwright Lucas Hnath cleverly keeps Trump entirely out of it by setting the play, not around her campaign against him but during her primaries campaign to gain the Democratic party nomination in 2008, in which she faced off against Barack Obama. Of course she ultimately lost on that occasion too, but it was a tightly-fought race, and is set here at the New Hampshire primary, the first of the races to be run and which she in fact won.
The second and most impressive note that Hnath provides is that the performers don't actively imitate the real Clintons and advises directors (in the published script of the original 2017 version of the play), "Don’t even try to cast actors who look like these people." So we're not invited to look at them through familiar eyes, but as theatrical characters who happen to be them. The play also sets off a philosophical speculation of parallel universes in which different outcomes may occur -- and plays with the same Stoppardian trick of his first hit play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead of demonstrating this with the sequences in which a coin lands heads first or tails.
This gives the play a playful meta theatrical framing -- and it is advanced by designer Chloe Lamford's set, itself a large picture frame, that advances forward towards the front of the stage.
But the play soon breaks free of those gestures to become a fiercely contested insider speculation about a modern marriage, much of which has been lived in the noisy public gaze, and the tensions this brings to their public and private lives. Hillary and Bill are stunningly brought to life by Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, respectively. Metcalf, who is fast turning into Broadway royalty with a now annual appearance there (her next role has already been announced for 2020, when she will play Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), is alternately defiant and insecure; the tall, imposing Lithgow has the right patrician presence and condescending charm. There's also strong support from Zak Orth as Hillary's campaign manager and Peter Francis James in a cameo role as Obama.
The play is by turns provocative and poignant, smart and funny.
(Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
"A mighty sigh — equal parts frustration and resignation — seems to animate Hillary and Clinton, Lucas Hnath’s piquant, slender new play about … well, it’s about exactly what, and whom, its title suggests. This production, which opened on Thursday night at the Golden Theater under the suave direction of Joe Mantello, is indeed a portrait of a marriage between two extremely well-known American politicians. As for that propulsive sigh, it emanates from the title character called Hillary, who spends the surprisingly airy 90 minutes of this show in what might be called a state of angry wistfulness. It is our very good fortune that Hillary is portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, an actress who does being thwarted better than anyone."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Directed firmly and dryly by Joe Mantello, Hillary and Clinton is cogent, snappy and perceptive about political and emotional realities. Much of the ground it covers might seem old to those who follow the news, but the play has now, as it could not have had in 2016, a looming sense of tragedy. Its final line, a shiv to the gut, sends you out hurting into the universe, outside the theater, where we somehow find ourselves now."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Not even two of the brightest stage stars — Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow — can make Hillary and Clinton more than a wispy exercise. The barbed comedy that opened Thursday night on Broadway doesn’t lack for laughs. But as it rehashes old wounds, it offers no fresh insights into either political or personal realms."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Post
"There's no shortage of scintillating elements in Hillary and Clinton. First and foremost are two giants of the American stage, Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, giving wryly amusing — and occasionally poignant — performances that tantalize with private glimpses into very public figures. Then there's playwright Lucas Hnath, who seems ideally equipped to explore a modern political power union, having mined subversive humor and stimulating insights on marriage and gender dynamics in A Doll's House, Part 2, which won Metcalf her first Tony Award. And not to forget Joe Mantello, one of the most reliably incisive directors working on Broadway."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work with these actors, sounding the depths of these iconic figures, than director Joe Mantello, who is also on deck."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety