Last time Broadway had a Lucas Hnath play, “A Doll’s House Part 2,” it won the Tony Award for Best Play; coincidentally, it also starred Laurie Metcalf, who not only won a Tony Award for that, but also won a Tony last year for “Three Tall Women” (directed by Joe Mantello). Here they all meet again, once again at the Golden Theatre (the parallelism here seems also too improbable to be true). It comes as quite a given then that “Hillary and Clinton,” another Lucas Hnath-Laurie Metcalf-Joe Mantello production, had a lot to live up to. Sadly, it doesn’t quite deliver.
The play takes place on the day leading up to and the day after the New Hampshire Democratic Primary in 2008, giving us some insight on what might have happened in Hillary Clinton’s hotel room in those fateful days. However, before the action can properly begin, Laurie Metcalf enters the stage and brings out a handheld microphone to give a small monologue on the infinite nature of the universe, and asks us to imagine another planet Earth with a woman named Hillary.
The introduction might seem unnecessarily intellectual, but it does some important work. Neither Laurie Metcalf nor John Lithgow make any attempt to mimic the voice, mannerisms, or physicality of their all-too-real characters. This is probably for the best and certainly lets them shine more as actors instead of simply making them into impersonators. They both give good performances, which is unsurprising, I would expect nothing less from two consummate and talented professionals. However, neither feels like they are bringing anything to these roles that they haven’t done before.
A lack of freshness is the main issue with this production, in the acting, the design (the set is an all white box by Chloe Lamford), and most disappointingly, in the text. Although Hnath’s other work is consistently superb and moving, almost everything about “Hillary and Clinton” feels expected. Every topic they debate, every fight they have is exactly would you guess if you had to postulate what the Clintons would have talked about: Hillary’s unlikeability, her lack of public emotion, the rivalry with Obama, Bill’s infidelity, and how everyone wonders why she hasn’t divorced him. The play has no surprises, no new insight.
The cast is rounded out by Zak Orth, who plays the frustrated campaign manager Mark, and Peter Francis James as Barack Obama. Although their roles are much smaller, both bring a great deal to a play that can otherwise feel flat. Of course, “Hillary and Clinton” does have some memorable moments, about one for each cast member: Mark tells Bill that he won’t be remembered for anything he did as president other than “that one thing,” Hillary has a great monologue about people invalidating her emotions, Bill has a tender moment where he accepts that it would be better if Hillary divorced him, and the entire scene where Barack and Hillary spar off about who should capitulate and become the other’s running mate is beautifully tense.
But sadly, the play otherwise is a bit bland. It’s runtime is about 90 minutes, and yet it still feels perhaps too long. Although “Hillary and Clinton” certainly has all the elements to be a great work — Lucas Hnath, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow, and Joe Mantello — it comes off as a much less good version of “Veep.” There is something haunting in Laurie Metcalf’s final monologue about how maybe in another universe, Hillary won; but sadly, we are in this universe, where she lost. It is hard to leave the theater without a feeling of disappointment.