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It’s easy to imagine that in some alternate universe, Hillary Clinton is still running for president. Lucas Hnath does just that in Hillary and Clinton, his modestly entertaining play running at the Golden Theatre. Hnath originally wrote the show in 2008, when Clinton was battling Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination; it debuted in 2016 in Chicago, Obama’s adopted hometown. But Hnath has completely rewritten the tale for its Broadway bow, keeping the 2008 setting but filtering it through the lens of Clinton’s shocking 2016 loss to Donald J. Trump. The ninety-minute one-act opens with Laurie Metcalf taking the stage with a broken microphone, proposing that there are multiple versions of our universe. “Imagine, okay, that light years away from here on one of those other planet Earths that’s like this one but slightly different that there’s a woman named Hillary,” she proposes. Metcalf then becomes Hillary, with John Lithgow as her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Neither actor attempts to mimic the character they are portraying, either vocally or physically. Metcalf wears sweatpants, Uggs, a turtleneck, and a zippered fleece, while Lithgow is dressed in jeans or shorts, sneakers, and a leather jacket. (The casual, suburban-style costumes are by Rita Ryack.) They look and talk just like Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow.
Hillary is in a nondescript New Hampshire hotel room (designed by Chloe Lamford), preparing for the state primary. Her campaign manager, the schlubby Mark (Zak Orth), is not overly concerned that she is trailing in the polls to the upstart Obama (Peter Francis James). “I’d actually be more worried if we were winning too fast,” Mark says. “As far as I’m concerned it’s good for you to be the underdog.” Hillary replies, “So me losing is a strategy?” Mark insists that Hillary keep Bill far away, but he soon comes knocking, offering advice that Mark and Hillary are not too keen on. “People don’t vote with their brain,” Bill explains like a wise professor. “They don’t, even people who think they do, don’t. It’s never not emotional.” One of the problems, he points out, is that she is not very likable, which she is not thrilled to hear. Perhaps this universe is not so different from ours after all. They all talk deals, but they don’t get into specific policies; Hnath focuses on the couple’s personalities and their desires — including the unsavory ones that led to Bill’s impeachment.
Two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (The Boys in the Band, Take Me Out), who directed Metcalf to a Tony as Nora in Hnath’s bold, insightful Ibsen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2 (she has won two Tonys and three Emmys and has been nominated for an Oscar), treats the Clintons just like regular people, a married couple having a series of familiar disagreements, even if in this case it involves one of them possibly becoming the leader of the free world. Two-time Tony winner Lithgow (Sweet Smell of Success, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) — he’s also won six Emmys and been nominated for two Oscars and four Grammys — has a calm grace as Bill, who is more needy than one would expect. Hillary and Clinton is not meant to be biographical, or even truthful. Did the things that come up in the play, especially between Barack and Hillary, actually happen in real life? It doesn’t really matter. Hnath has given us an slice of alternate Americana, and while it might not be as satisfying as Grandma’s apple pie, it is a sly, tasty little snack.