America’s recent past is on trial in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, which finds the couple in a New Hampshire hotel room ahead of the 2008 presidential primary.
Hnath imagines an alternate universe where the fates of its title characters, played by Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow, may not be predetermined. But the drama scarcely does more than scratch curiosity over the private lives of public figures, and assuage those whose obvious sympathies may have led them through the door.
As in A Doll’s House Part II, a previous collaboration between the playwright, Metcalf and director Joe Mantello, Hnath leans on an existing narrative, punctuating it with knowing winks.
Metcalf’s Hillary is talking strategy with her pollster Mark (Zak Orth) and her deep-pocketed husband with Oval Office experience (Lithgow). Obama (played with smart subtlety by Peter Francis James) makes a cameo as the two candidates trade in dirt and deals.
Hnath’s retreading of her thwarted campaign and storied marriage finds this Hillary shaped by the push and pull of men, despite a trenchant performance from Metcalf. One man thinks she ought to show more feeling; the other disagrees. Her reasoning for doing one or the other is framed by her relationship to them.
By stripping the story of its social context — in sharpened hindsight, it’s about nascent gender, race, and class wars — Hnath has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. While Metcalf and Lithgow succeed in making political royalty feel believably flesh-and-blood, the play suffers from a lack of substance.