When you were in high school, were you taught, as I was, to write essays using the general-specific-general template? I think of an hourglass shape: Essentially, we were taught to make some sweeping statement, connect it to our topic, talk about our topic, then zoom way back out again. “In all of human history, people have always fought wars. This reminds me of the report I’m supposed to write on the Battle of Gettysburg … And in conclusion, people will probably keep fighting wars.”
It’s … not a great technique. It’s what you do when you don’t actually have a thesis. And it’s essentially what Lucas Hnath is doing in Hillary and Clinton, a not particularly meaty exploration of the emotional life and logic behind a couple of particularly public figures. He starts by zooming way, way out: The always compelling Laurie Metcalf steps onstage in sweats, house lights still up, to talk to us about the universe. Somewhere far away, Tom Stoppard’s eye starts twitching as she begins the play by flipping a coin and ruminating about probability. She concludes that the universe is infinite and unpredictable, and therefore there must be “all kinds of planet Earths,” including a planet Earth “like this one but slightly different,” where there’s “a woman named Hillary … trying to become the president of a country called the United States of America.” We are to imagine this Hillary — like the one we know but, you know, on a different planet Earth — in 2008, in a New Hampshire hotel room on the eve of that state’s primary, nervously contemplating the fact that her numbers are slipping and her opponent, a guy called Barack (we never get his last name), is pulling ahead. And action.
Hnath, who firmly warns actors against doing imitations of the real folks they’re playing, is attempting to clear our minds of everything we think we know — to “elevate these characters beyond a facile tabloid reality,” say his stage directions. But the path he’s chosen into the would-be-elevated world of his play feels a little easy-breezy, a first-thought-worst-thought kind of solution. His good fortune is to be reunited with Metcalf, the Tony-winning star of his 2017 hit A Doll’s House Part 2. As the big names of the play’s title, Metcalf and John Lithgow are the very watchable wind beneath its wings — but those wings are pretty rickety.
Once we’ve all tacitly agreed to go somewhere else in the multiverse, Chloe Lamford’s backless white box of a set slides forward to encompass the play’s action, and director Joe Mantello does his best with the actors to deliver on the punny promise made in the show’s advertising: “Primarily a comedy.” But Hillary and Clinton isn’t really much of a comedy. It’s not much of a drama either. It’s four good actors giving bodies to a series of ideas that are, even if valid, pretty well chewed-over. Hillary was running on experience and ability, not personality. No matter what she did she was undermined, culturally stripped of her ability to show emotion and then judged for not having any, damned if she left Bill and damned if she stayed with him, trapped in a narrative that wanted her to be a mother when she was trying to be — and had every qualification to be — a leader. Vacillating between hangdog and ingratiating, Lithgow’s lanky Bill repeatedly encourages his wife to open up, to stop being so “cold and stubborn and guarded.” “People don’t like people who make them feel like shit,” he says, smiling. “How about if ‘people’ grow the fuck up?,” Hillary snaps in reply.
It’s fun to listen to Metcalf fire off lines like this. She and Lithgow are so nimble, so at ease in themselves and such good listeners, that the play for the most part bobs along on the strength of their charisma. Playing Mark — Hillary’s dogged, long-suffering campaign manager, based on Mark Penn — Zak Orth also puts up a good fight. In Orth’s hands, Mark feels like a smart bear who’s been running for too long on a treadmill. He’s a little zhlubby and maybe not quite as on-the-pulse as he thinks, but he’s trying so hard and clearly means so well, and so it’s a genuinely ugly shocker when Hillary decides, during a high-stakes meet-up with Barack, to throw Mark under the bus. As Barack himself, Peter Francis James doesn’t fare quite so well, but you can hardly blame him. He’s been given a thankless part, more plot motivator than character. Because he’s far less developed than Hillary or Bill, avoiding an imitation becomes a harder task, and James doesn’t have much to do instead. Meanwhile, Mantello has him upstage himself for pretty much all of his one short scene.
Hillary and Clinton isn’t really a political play. Like A Doll’s House Part 2, it’s a marriage play inside an attention-getting box. In Doll’s House, that box came together with its contents to form something fresh and fascinating, but here, the play’s best moments seem like just that — moments. Flashes of insight or feeling that don’t necessarily come together to provide significant new revelation into the figures of the title or into our relationship with them. The play wants to go deep, but it’s full of writerly sidesteps. During a prolonged shouting match between Mark and Bill, Hillary groans and lies down on the floor, her arm over her eyes. Hnath is most comfortable in dialogues, so he simply takes her out of the scene. Even the setting seems like a safe choice: We’re back in 2008, before the real shit hit the fan, because the play is only peripherally concerned with the real shit. It’s more concerned with the psychology of a husband and wife, and that’s the scale on which it makes its most effective observations.
“You know what — what really pisses me off,” Metcalf’s Hillary tells Bill, her face hard with pain, “is the thought that you get the best version of me, while the version that everyone else gets is drained and used up and stale and wooden … Well, do you ever think that maybe you might have some part in me being so drained and stale and wooden?” Metcalf is squeezing everything she can out of the role, and she lands the line with all the power and accuracy of a champion shot-putter. In the moment, it resonates. But all the moments don’t really add up.
Hillary and Clinton is at the Golden Theatre.