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

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

  • MCC theater presents 'Alice By Heart'

    Steven Sater on Adapting 'Alice by Heart' From a Musical to a Book

    When producers approached lyricist Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”) to adapt Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” into a musical, his initial reaction was to recoil. His initial thought was that the book didn’t have a beginning, middle and an ending. But Sater pulled it off with his production of “Alice By Heart.” After an off-Broadway [...]

  • The Lehman Trilogy review

    Sam Mendes' 'Lehman Trilogy' Kicks off Ahmanson's New Season

    Sam Mendes’ “The Lehman Trilogy,” which took London’s West End by storm will be part of the Ahmanson’s lineup for the 2020-21 season. It will be joined by Broadway hits “Hadestown” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Artistic director Michael Ritchie announced the season that will also feature four fan favorites and another production to be [...]

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content