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Stage Door: Hillary and Clinton 

We're seeing a lot of theater in the run up to the Tonys. Here's new contributor J.B.

For the last twenty years or so, and probably longer, well-crafted stories about women in politics told on stage or screen have frequently been described with words like “timely” or “vital.”  These stories, in many cases, are ones we haven’t heard before, and to the extent we as a society want our art to imitate life (and indeed, vice versa), they are, now more than ever, ones we need to hear.

It is for this reason that Hillary and Clinton, a well-crafted story about the quintessential woman in American politics now playing at the John Golden Theater in New York, feels like such an anomaly. The play, written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Joe Mantello (his SEVENTH production on Broadway in just the last three years), takes place in a hotel room during the thick of the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic Primary and offers an imagined glimpse into what exactly the titular characters (played by Tony-winners Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, respectively) may have been thinking, feeling, and communicating to each other at that precise place and time in history...

On its page devoted to the play, where tickets are also available for purchase, advertises Hillary and Clinton with the blurb “Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow star in Lucas Hnath’s timely new work.” There’s that word, “timely.” But in fact, this description is a rather ironic one here, since the play is, in all reality, neither timely nor new. In fact, it was written in 2008, when the events on which it focuses were very recent history. But in 2019, those events feel like ancient history, and the themes and insights Hnath uses them to convey (generally about the experience of being a woman running for President of the United States and specifically about the experience of being Hillary Rodham Clinton) feel gratuitous and at times even painful. After all, since the play was written, we all watched Hillary mount and lose yet another presidential campaign, and, before, during and after that campaign, speak and write ad nauseum about what it is like to be a woman running for President, and what it is like to be her.

Because of this, Hillary and Clinton doesn’t pack the punch it would have had it had premiered in, say, 2009. But in 2019 it's still a sharp, well-staged, funny, and poignant when it needs to be. Metcalf, as always, knocks it absolutely out of the park as Hillary, and Lithgow and the supporting cast keep up. The work itself doesn’t quite match what Hnath accomplished with his 2017 smash A Doll’s House, Part 2 (a transcendent mediation on love, marriage, gender and society, also starring Metcalf), but it’s thoughtful, inquisitive, and worthy of a Broadway stage. There is wisdom, humor and even some spark of joy and optimism to be found in it. What it is not, however, is “timely.” Spoiler alert, but the play literally contains a scene in which Barack Obama, in an attempt to convince Hillary to concede the democratic nomination to him, says in so many words:

This isn’t your time, Hil. But your time will come.”

Ouch. For me, it’s still too soon to be able to watch that exchange play out and not wince (or worse). Maybe there will come a time when I am ready to relive or re-examine the course of the 2016 election, but that time is most definitely not now. And that is where Hillary and Clinton struggles most.  

The play frames its story as one taking place in an “alternate universe”, but doesn’t do a good enough job of transporting the audience to that universe. Metcalf doesn’t wear a pantsuit or a blonde wig in the production, but that alone isn’t enough to distract the audience from, what is surely for many of us, the traumatic nature of the events the work is portraying in order to allow us to sufficiently focus on or appreciate the sophisticated, meticulously-curated thoughts and ideas Hnath is trying to impart. On the contrary, towards the end of the play, Hillary waxes poetic in a particularly gripping monologue about the fact that if one universe exists, which is does, then countless alternate universes must also exist, and maybe, somewhere, in one of those universes, she is President. Hnath, to be sure, is saying something profound and meaningful with this monologue. But about the only thing I took away from it was the fact that, at this moment in time, wherever that alternate universe exists, I’d rather be living there than in this one.  

Tony Awards? Metcalf is a lock for a Best Leading Actress in a Play nomination, and could very well snag her third Tony. Expect Lithgow, also a two-time previous winner, and Hnath, a previous nominee, to show up among the nominations as well for Best Actor and Best Play respectively. Otherwise, Mantello stands a good shot for his directing, as does Peter Francis James for his featured role as President Barack Obama.  


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Reader Comments (21)

Free Assange.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Very disappointing to here that coming from you Peggy Sue...
That rapist pig deserves to be jailed for the rest of his life

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMallinckrodt

I can’t watch this - it would be just too painful on so many levels. But glad to hear it’s good.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

I saw this a couple weeks back and was absolutely floored by both Metcalf and Lithgow. I suspect it's Metcalf vs. Elaine May (THE WAVERLY GALLERY) for the win.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Andrew -- i'm so sad that I missed Waverly Gallery. Heard May was incredible.

April 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I wish this would come to Europe so we could have a laugh.


April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel

Marcel - Same!

Have you seen the news? Laurie will be playing Martha next season with Eddie Izzard as George. I don't quite see her as Martha. Do you?

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@Peggy Too much Laurie, not enough Imelda.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Fuck Julian Assange. He's not a rebel. He's a piece of shit troll just there to stir up shit for anyone who will pay him. And fuck his bitch Pam Anderson too for buying into his bullshit.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Do they cover the period when she swallowed her pride and stood by an abuser?

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDaya

@thevoid99 I get it. I guess that it would also bother me to know that Hillary Clinton used the destruction of Libya to secure her election

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel

This woman is so toxic. She brings the worst in everyone.

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAntoinette Perry

As New Yorkers, aren't you all a bit mad that she -a millonaire- gets free tickets to every single show on Broadway when you have to pay like 200 dollars for a seat in the gods?

April 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterA socialist

These comments are a reminder of why America is never going to recover from Trump. The irrational hatred for Hillary Clinton made people so crazy that they would rather throw democracy in the garbage than align with her.

April 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I know you don't like politics or watch documentaries but to think that Hillary is the beacon of democracy makes me flush.

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNot Jessica Chastain

@andrew carden: surely glenda jackson is the frontrunner?

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

"Every nation has the government it deserves" I've always hated that quote but damn some of you all do deserve Trump, I just wish that collective stupidity hadn't fucked it up for the rest of us.
As the piece suggests, I'm really not ready for a play like this.

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGJackson

I am 100% with you, Nathaniel and GJackson. You Hilary haters are the total worst.

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Nathaniel - right? I will never, ever understand why Hillary inspires such intense vitriol, even now when she's barely in the public eye. It's insanely out of proportion to anything she's ever done that actually merits censure, and completely ignores everything that she's done that merits respect and admiration.

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

ugh you guys. these exchanges are making me sad...

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I too think Jackson is the frontrunner.

April 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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