REVIEW: The indignity of “Hillary and Clinton”
Note: the author has worked for Secretary Clinton since 2005.
Apparently there is no depth to the level of indignity that Hillary Rodham Clinton must suffer for the sin of doing what a millennia of men before her have done, and twice asserting herself as someone smart enough and capable enough to lead the nation.
The fact that I need not bother to itemize a single instance of indignity for you to understand the broader context of what I mean says a lot about the way one woman’s life and choices have been so thoroughly analyzed and pummeled in the public square—and how used to it we are—that it barely registers as noteworthy anymore. It’s simply the air we breathe.
Well, you can add to that long list one more item: a revised version of Lucas Hnath’s 2008 play “Hillary and Clinton”, which is currently running on Broadway in a limited engagement at the Golden Theatre.
Of course, being scrutinized is what comes with being a public figure, but the degree and permissiveness with which the life and choices of Hillary Rodham Clinton have been analyzed in public has no compare.
A depressing form of inept and backhanded fan fiction, “Hillary and Clinton” is advertised as “primarily a comedy”, but anyone who has one iota of sensitivity to or knowledge of the pernicious way that female leaders have been so thoroughly and casually demeaned and degraded for sport will be offended that this play has been given the platform it now enjoys. That’s nothing to laugh about, “primarily” or otherwise.
Set in a hotel room on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic Primary in January 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton (Laurie Metcalf) reels from her third place finish in the Iowa Caucuses and suddenly finds her campaign out of money, playing catch up to the upstart newcomer Barack Obama.
Alone and cornered, she accepts her husband Bill’s (John Lithgow) request to come join her. The balance of the play becomes a dissection of their relationship and the way it is intertwined with their political lives.
Advisor Mark Penn (Zak Orth) and Barack Obama (Peter Francis James) make appearances as part of an ahistorical plotline involving a deal for Hillary to drop out in exchange for becoming Obama’s running mate, but the play is—as its title suggests—about Hillary and Bill.
Except, it isn’t.
Per Mr. Hnath’s explicit instruction, Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Lithgow make no attempt to mimic or embody in sound or form the Hillary and Bill we know.
Instead, they are playing characters with the same names and basic story. To make it clear to the audience, Ms. Metcalf begins the play with a speech positing the theory that because the universe is infinite, there are an infinite number of planet Earths just like ours but only “slightly” different.
The play takes place on one of those other planet Earths where a woman named Hillary Clinton just so happens to be married to a former president named Bill Clinton and just so happens to be running for president.
Is this a clever device that elucidates an interesting idea, or just a convenient excuse to avoid a defamation lawsuit?
Mr. Hnath makes clear that “Hillary and Clinton” isn’t about “Hillary” or “Clinton”. But, of course it is. This frame is not incisive or illuminating, it is exploitative, using the names and story of two of the most well-known figures in the world to sell tickets for what is essentially a marriage play about the marriage of a famous couple, the intimate details of which are unknown except for tabloid gossip and conjecture.
Change the names, alter some of the finer details, and this play wouldn’t be on Broadway. The fact that it is the Clintons is the point, no matter how many speeches about alternate universes pepper the script.
And therein lies one major problem. Using contemporary, living political figures as characters in a play denudes the work of any possibility that it might speak to a larger truth since their story, never mind history, is not complete, and therefore cannot accurately be assessed in any meaningful way. In short: it’s too soon.
As was the case with Mr. Hnath’s 2017 smash “A Doll’s House: Part 2”, his skill for constructing compelling dialogue around arguments in which the audience finds itself siding with whomever is speaking is uncanny.
That is the case here, except for the fact that the conversations in question are wildly unrealistic and inauthentic—the well-intentioned product of someone who has just clearly never spent time with a politician behind closed doors, or worked in politics.
It is rare for my two jobs to intersect so bluntly, but in a strange twist of fate, I am reviewing this show as a theatre critic but also as someone who has known and worked for Secretary Clinton for fourteen years. I served on her 2008 campaign for president and was actually on the ground in New Hampshire during the timeline of this play. I know her quite well, and can personally attest that the depiction in “Hillary and Clinton” is just plain wrong.
Does my relationship with the Clintons and experience as a campaign veteran make my impression of the show biased? Of course.
But every politically and socially sentient audience member is biased, too. That’s the point. Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Lithgow have both spoken at length about how they’ve never been in a play before where the audience brings so much to the performance because everyone has an opinion on the Clintons and their marriage. Again, it’s the air we breathe.
And so, this is the biased opinion of perhaps the only person writing about this show who actually knows the characters and experienced Hillary’s campaigns from behind the scenes.
Discarding with the dubious idea that the play is meant as some fiction, the substance of the story is so factually inaccurate at times that its very performance begins to feel irresponsible as a matter of civic integrity. Published and performed words have power and shape narratives. Hillary speaks about the personally enriching consulting fees that Bill has received for his “charity work”, when in reality the life-saving work he has done through the Clinton Foundation, a first class global philanthropy, is pro bono.
Dressed like refugees from the 1990s (costumes by Rita Ryack), Hillary and Bill talk to each other as if they are strangers whose marriage is nothing more than a public relations arrangement. He’s been banished from her campaign; she’s out of touch with what is happening on the trail, holed up in a hotel room, pacing and eating French fries.
Of course, Bill campaigned vigorously for Hillary throughout the 2008 and 2016 campaigns. In fact, I staffed one of his events on the very Sunday that this play is supposed to take place.
Mr. Lithgow’s Bill is pitiful, self-centered, and petulant. Ms. Metcalf’s Hillary caustic, defeated, and angry. Both characters are reduced to bitter, small-minded people—a far cry from the vibrant public servants I personally know.
That Ms. Metcalf, in particular, and Mr. Lithgow also happen to be giving excellent performances—albeit as unrecognizably fictional versions of real people—under the always reliably smart direction of Joe Mantello is beside the point.
As a threshold question, the entire enterprise is an irredeemably sexist exercise that has the effect of diminishing the character and achievements one of the most accomplished and celebrated women in American history—and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States—while perpetuating a false myth about the problem of her “likability” and lack of skill for connecting with people, two phenomena disproven by any objective review of the record.
I have no doubt that Mr. Hnath, Mr. Mantello, and their company—all of whom I admire greatly—have the best of intentions. Mr. Lithgow campaigned for Hillary in 2016! But I can’t help pointing out the cruel irony that in putting together a play in which a character laments how her marriage and her choices have been fodder for public discussion ad infinitum, no one thought the better of the fact that the play itself does exactly this: putting a woman’s marriage and choices *literally* up on stage for people to once again ponder and discuss.
What is even more staggering is that this woman is a former First Lady, United States Senator, Secretary of State, and two-time presidential candidate who is still alive and still very much part of the public conversation. Heck, her office is a short walk from the Golden Theatre.
That no one along the way objected to the very idea of “Hillary and Clinton” as a piece of theatre speaks volumes to the way that a woman’s pain and privacy is so easily discounted and used as entertainment or thought of as appropriate, “thought-provoking” material for audiences to explore, instead of being seen for precisely what it is: yet another indignity that a woman in the public sphere has to bear that a man in her position would never have to.
Until we see plays like “Al and Gore” or “Kerry and Heinz”, I rest my case.
Bottom Line: Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” is a depressing form of inept and backhanded fan fiction, the very existence of which is irredeemably sexist. Putting the marriage and choices of one of the most accomplished and celebrated women in American history on stage for yet more public scrutiny is an indignity no male politician would ever face. Great performances aside, this inaccurate and intrusive play’s existence on Broadway feels irresponsible as a matter of civic integrity.
“Hillary and Clinton”
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 18, 2019
Final Performance: June 23, 2019