×

Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in ‘Hillary and Clinton’

The perfectly cast Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow struggle to reveal any fresh ideas in this new play.

With:
Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow, Zac Orth, Peter Francis James.

1 hour 30 minutes

If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work with these actors, sounding the depths of these iconic figures, than director Joe Mantello, who is also on deck.

The only thing wrong in this fictionalized visit to the 2008 primary — the one that saw Barack Obama claim the Democratic nomination for president over Hillary — is that playwright Hnath, Tony nominated for “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” has brought nothing of substance to the table. The characters stand up. The language is strong. But like Claudius’s earnest prayer to his resolutely unimpressed God in “Hamlet,” nothing said by either party reaches the heavens.

Glenda Jackson has observed that characters in a play don’t know they are characters in a play: “They’re just living their lives.” Hnath would like us to honor that fiction here. Don’t imitate the “real” Hillary and Bill, he says in a program note. Pretend you’ve never heard of the Clintons. Create entirely new characters. (Lots of luck with that.)

The play opens in 2008 in a hotel room in New Hampshire, where not-Clinton and not-Obama are slugging it out for the nomination. And while not-Obama (a shaky Peter Francis James) makes a surprise appearance to make a surprise move, the focus is on not-Hillary and not-Bill, who are at odds on the best political tactics for prevailing in the primaries and snagging the nomination.

In a speech directed at the audience, Hillary keeps flipping a coin while ruminating on the existential possibility that the reality she’s living is not necessarily the only reality floating around up there in the universe. She’s lagging behind Obama in the polls and playing with the notion that maybe, in some alternate reality in this infinite universe of possibilities, she will beat this upstart who has jumped the line of accession, prevailing against him in New Hampshire. (Now that’s a play I really want to see.)

“I’ve been campaigning for close to a year now. I haven’t slept. I’m tired. I’m very tired.” Metcalf, who is dressed in baggy comfort-clothes by Rita Ryack, looks as exhausted as she sounds. Running for president is no country for old men or middle-aged women who need their sleep, so Hillary has a heart-to-heart with her campaign manager, Josh, played like a proper cheerleader by Zak Orth. She needs money, she needs poll numbers, she needs encouragement, she needs sleep.

Josh explains that being the underdog is actually working for her. “So me losing is a strategy?” she snaps back at him. Snap, snap, snap. For a while, Hnath gets away with the sympathetic characters and their snappy dialogue. But it’s inevitable that Hillary would give in to her baser political instincts and call Bill for help.

“He’s good where he is, which is far from here,” says Josh, who managed to kick the bad-boy ex-president off the campaign and into the wilderness. But it’s obvious where this is going, and we’re all thrilled when Bill (Lithgow, looking ready for bear) saunters through the door. Surely that’s the signal that something will actually happen in this static play. But, no, this Bill person turns out to be just another mouthpiece for clever chit-chat.

“When you start to lose, you pull out,” Bill advises his wife. “Pull out fast. Don’t linger. People linger. People get up there, they linger and they die. Then they rot. They rot in public. Don’t let them see you rot.”

Besides pulling off terrific political pep talks like that, Hnath also gets the intimate cadences of a close couple’s domestic rhythms, and lets Metcalf and Lithgow have their fun. But what about us? Where’s our fun? In an alternate reality, surely Hillary would be Queen of the Universe and Bill would be picking her up in a golden chariot. Let’s see that play.

Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

Golden Theater; 787 seats; $159 top. Opened April 18, 1019. Reviewed April 13. Running time: ONE HOUR, 30 MIN.

Production: A production by Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Bob Boyett, Tom Miller, Len Blavatnik, James L. Nederlander, John Gore Organization, Candy Spelling, True Love Productions, and Adam Rodner; executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, and John Johnson, of a play in one act by Lucas Hnath.

Creative: Directed by Joe Mantello. Set, Chloe Lamford; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Leon Rothenberg; production stage manager, James Fitzsimmons.

Cast: Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow, Zac Orth, Peter Francis James.

More Legit

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOW MOSCOWby

    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

  • the way she spoke review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Way She Spoke' With Kate del Castillo

    Since the 1990s, scores of women in Juarez, Mexico have been mutilated, raped, and murdered at such a rate that some have called it an epidemic of femicide—killing women and girls solely because they are women. Isaac Gomez’s play “the way she spoke,” produced Off Broadway by Audible and starring Kate del Castillo, confronts the [...]

  • HBO's 'SUCCESSION

    Brian Cox Playing LBJ in Broadway Run of 'The Great Society'

    Brian Cox will play President Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway run of “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s follow-up to “All the Way.” The role of Johnson, a crude, but visionary politician who used the office of the presidency to pass landmark civil rights legislation and social programs, was originally played by Bryan Cranston in [...]

  • Paul McCartney Has Penned Score for

    Paul McCartney Has Been Secretly Writing an 'It's a Wonderful Life' Musical

    The pop superstar who once released a movie and album called “Give My Regards to Broad Street” really does have designs on Broadway, after all. It was revealed Wednesday that Paul McCartney has already written a song score for a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The [...]

  • The Night of the Iguana review

    West End Review: 'The Night of the Iguana' With Clive Owen

    If Tennessee Williams is the poet laureate of lost souls, none of his characters as are off-grid as the restless travelers trying to make it through his little-seen 1961 play, “The Night of the Iguana.” Holed up in a remote Mexican homestay, its ragtag itinerants live hand-to-mouth, day by day, as they seek refuge from [...]

  • Moulin Rouge Broadway

    Listen: The Special Sauce in Broadway's 'Moulin Rouge!'

    There are songs in the new Broadway version of “Moulin Rouge!” that weren’t in Baz Luhrmann’s hit movie — but you probably know them anyway. They’re popular tunes by superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Rihanna, released after the 2001 movie came out, and they’ll probably unleash a flood of memories and associations in every audience [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content