Culture

Stripping Almost-President Hillary to the Core

John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf in Hillary and Clinton (Julieta Cervantes)
Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton astutely maps out the Clinton dynamic.

Writing clear-eyed and fairly about Hillary Clinton has proven virtually impossible for the pundit class. We on the right needle her relentlessly; the rest make excuses for her, blame her downfall on others. A play by one of America’s more interesting playwrights has managed to cut through all of our emotional responses and consider her failures without pity, sentiment, or rancor. Hillary and Clinton does not pander either to HRC haters or to her supporters, and given that more or less everyone is in one of those two camps, the work is having a hard time finding an audience or winning awards. Yet it is a penetrating and astute play.

Hillary Clinton lost because voters didn’t see her as human but did see her as corrupt, and both of these flaws are tightly bound to her marriage. In 75 minutes, Lucas Hnath’s play strips her to the core. It even strips her pants off her; one of the more disconcerting concepts being presented on the New York stage these days is Hillary Clinton’s legs being finally bared.

The legs are those of Laurie Metcalf, who in one scene argues with her husband in nothing but underpants and a sweater. She plays Hillary without the slightest attempt at mimicry, which is a relief. John Lithgow, who also avoids adopting the speech or mannerisms of his subject, plays Bill as a wounded, petulant narcissist. Seems about right. We see a lot of his legs too, as he lounges in short shorts. Is there a better way to cut these two historical figures down to size than to put their legs on display?

As directed by Joe Mantello in minimalist style, with the unadorned rear wall of the John Golden Theater visible behind the stage, Hillary and Clinton takes place in a spare white hotel room just before and just after the New Hampshire primary in the winter of 2008. After Mrs. Clinton’s third-place finish in Iowa, a campaign flunky (Zak Orth) confidently explains that she is in second in New Hampshire. “So me losing is a strategy,” she says drily. Hillary’s campaign is broke. She cannot call Bill for help. Yet she must call Bill for help. And so here he is on her doorstep, whiny and hurt, babbling about some encounter with a witch doctor in Croatia and the curse that supposedly lies upon him. Travels to exotic lands in high style are his life while she is trying to shake votes out of people in small-town diners. Oh, how is she? he asks in passing. “I’m good, Bill, I’m good,” she says, adding a helpful reminder: “I’m runnin’ for president.”

Lithgow doesn’t overplay his theory of the character, but Bill is essentially a child. Yet he is also possessed of the political acumen of which she is utterly bereft. Bill knows what’s ailing her campaign: The voters can’t relate to her. She needs to show some emotion. A high point of the play, and one of the most sagacious passages about Hillary I’ve ever come across, is her explanation of why she can’t do that. She’s been betrayed too many times. She’s all cried out. “People don’t like people who make them feel like s**t,” he advises. “How about people grow the f**k up,” she replies. The audience with which I saw the play burst into applause, which might have been cathartic for Hillary voters, but of course he is right and she is wrong. You don’t get to blame the voters for not liking you.

Hillary asks Bill to pump some money into her campaign, and it’s understood that if some corners need to be cut, that’s fine. But after she pulls out a victory in New Hampshire largely attributable to a brief episode of crying, Barack Obama (played with an appropriate mix of condescension and veiled menace by Peter Francis James) comes around to lay down some harsh facts for her. He knows what the Clinton Foundation has been up to. It doesn’t look good. It will come out, he warns. She fires back, presciently, that he is a rookie who doesn’t know how the Washington game is played and won’t be able to get much of anything done as president.

The web of corruption around the Clintons is, along with her personality, the reason she is not president today. Yet there must be ten thousand pages of commentary about WikiLeaks and the Russians for every page that mentions the very troubling mechanics of the Clinton cash machine. I’d argue that she was fully complicit with all of this, but Hnath sees her as simply getting caught up in Bill’s schemes the same way she got caught up in the machinery of his philandering. Either way, Hnath is forthright about what doomed Hillary, and it wasn’t Vladimir Putin. The play makes some unnecessary moves when Metcalf breaks the fourth wall to remind us we’re in an alternate universe that is very similar to this one, but even right here on Earth in the 21st century, the playwright’s analysis of Hillary Clinton is devastatingly credible without being ungenerous about her plight. She got within inches of the presidency because of whom she married, and that man is also a central reason she never will be president. Her creator was her destroyer. Did he even want her to win? It’s unclear. In the play, Hillary offers an opinion on that, and it seems spot-on.

Since neither Bill nor Hillary has ever spoken frankly about their marriage, and it is likely that neither ever will, it falls upon works of the imagination to map out what its internal dynamics might be like. Hillary and Clinton is a resoundingly persuasive analysis of what it’s like in there.

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