by Margret Echeverria
When did we come to expect our political leaders to be super heroes? Does it go back to the pharaohs claiming a bloodline of the gods? How can you be a sane and well-adjusted person, have all that responsibility and be a god? What a curse. HILLARY AND CLINTON, the new play by Lucas Hnath, now playing at the Golden Theatre on Broadway directed by Joe Mantello, brings Hillary and Bill Clinton – our heroes or super villains, depending on how you think – back down to the human level. In an imagined reality, we go behind the public facade and see a days’ long conversation during the New Hampshire primary in 2008 within a marriage rubbed raw by shame, ambition and impossible expectations.
Mantello, thank the gods, does not encourage his actors to imitate as closely as possible the well-known characters of our recent political history. Rather, he allows the essence of the real Hillary (Laurie Metcalf), Bill (John Lithgow) and Barack (Peter Francis James) to exist within the work of these actors while the humanity, as interpreted by them, shines through tenderly causing us to feel a kinship with their hope and disappointments. Metcalf hints at that tight Hillary Clinton signature smile and then breaks our hearts when she describes what she saw in and felt for her daughter when Bill Clinton confessed yet another sin in 1998. Hell yes, Sister. I’ve been there, I thought. Lithgow embodies the charisma we loved about Bill and then packs an emotional sucker punch when he expresses a craving for his wife’s affection. Lithgow’s Clinton nearly collapses under the mistake of
calling Obama “illegitimate,” but under the clever guidance of his disappointed wife he apologizes to James’ Barack, who is all Obama swagger, when he confronts the two of them with evidence of questionable campaign financing. James give us Obama’s ambition made vulnerable by the human desire to be liked – and the ambition to win – which will lead him to use the corrupt interpretations of the actions of his political opponent that were, for the most part innocent, to his advantage. The cautious, guarded affection between the Clintons, was achingly familiar to this long-married woman. How do we do this dance of disappointment, forgiveness and reconstruction with each other over and over again without killing each other?
Hnath brings to the story the concept of multi-universes, chance and infinite possibilities. Is this string theory? Bring it on. I love science or quantum physics or whatever nerdy brainiac idea this is that bumps science right up to spirituality. Is there a place where Hillary Clinton did become president? Unfortunately, on this earth, we were not witness to that, she tells us. And we feel how trapped she is. How ashamed, defeated, cursed by her sex she is while Bill goes on about some European witch doctor who declared that his belly was cursed. Ah, if only he knew what it was like to be a woman and, specifically, his wife in this public spotlight, this fish bowl, as Jackie Kennedy was rumored to describe it, he would throw up that curse right out of his belly.
I loved this show. There was so much heartbreak here that is so familiar to me as I have watched the absurd sneak into my government. Why is it that we insist that everyone think only like us and why do we associate that standard with worthiness in political candidates? People stopped dying of AIDS when we stopped calling homosexuality a sinful perversion, but rather what it actually is: people loving whom they love. Perhaps marriages would stop dying if we could allow those who cannot be monogamous to live outside the closet as well. Perhaps politics could be focused more on what is personally beneficial to the citizens if we were not so fixated like children on a playground with poking at the shame in our very human leaders. I just know this fictional conversation that I witnessed tonight touched on some very real truths. Our humanity belongs in our politics as a reminder of our vulnerability, not as a target for sand in the gears that grind out thoughtful solutions when grounded in what is truly important: protecting the dignity of us all.
HILLARY AND CLINTON by Lucas Hnath; directed by Joe Mantello
WITH Laurie Metcalf (Hillary), Zak Orth (Mark), John Lithgow (Bill), Peter Francis James (Barack).
Set by Chloe Lamford; Lights by Hugh Vanstone; Costumes by Rita Ryack.
The production has been extended through July 4, 2019 at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. For tickets, priced $39–$159, visit http://shubert.nyc/theatres/golden/.