Stage Door: Hillary and Clinton 
Friday, April 12, 2019 at 10:30PM
J.B. in Barack Obama, Broadway and Stage, Hillary Clinton, Joe Mantello, John Lithgow, Laurie Metcalf, Peter Francis James, Reviews, Stage Door, Tony Awards, gender politics, politics

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.  


Article originally appeared on The Film Experience (
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