Hillary and Clinton, Broadway review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow make a formidable couple

Power couple: John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf in Hillary and Clinton - Copyright 2019 Julieta Cervantes
Power couple: John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf in Hillary and Clinton - Copyright 2019 Julieta Cervantes

If Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow ran for the U.S. presidency, they’d be an unbeatable ticket. Watching them in the new Broadway play Hillary and Clinton, as an alternate version of the political power couple, is like peeking in on an acting master class. The casual intensity they bring to their roles is riveting.

Set in the early days of the 2008 presidential election, Lucas Hnath’s finely blended comedic drama is no straight-up biography, though it borrows from what was happening at the time. As Hillary flounders in the polls of the New Hampshire primary, and a young senator named Barack Obama captures the hearts of voters, the former first lady, who had vowed to campaign without help from husband Bill, calls on him for monetary assistance.

Is he more of a hindrance, though? That question is explored over the course of this lively 90-minute play, directed by Joe Mantello, as Bill arrives to bemoan his own plight (being left alone at the holidays!) before taking a stab at assisting Hillary. As they wrestle with their difficult history and future, questions that have dogged the real Hillary since she became a prominent figure during the 1992 presidential campaign emerge.

Was it a mistake not to divorce Bill when his infidelities became public? Why doesn’t she show her emotional side in public appearances? “Things that are supposed to make me cry just don’t,” Hillary tells Bill, after rehashing her response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “I keep it together.” And that’s no easy task, when your campaign manager, Mark Penn (Zak Orth), thinks you should drop out and take an offer from Barack (Peter Francis James) to be his running mate.

This isn’t the first time Hnath has boldly imagined the unseen life of a well-known female. He made his Broadway debut two year ago with A Doll’s House, Part 2, sending Ibsen’s Nora Helmer back to the home she abandoned when she walked out on her husband and child. The incandescent Metcalf won the first of her two consecutive Tony Awards as the tragic heroine.

Although Nora left her marriage while Hillary stayed in hers, and the two plays take place in different centuries, their protagonists grapple with similar issues, like the challenges women face trying to be an individual within a marriage. For Hillary, that problem is compounded by being wed to a magnetically charismatic man.

Metcalf and Lithgow make no attempt to look or sound like the actual Clintons (though the latter spends a portion of the play in showing some serious leg in jogging shorts, not unlike the 42nd president). Lithgow’s Clinton is robust and relaxed, having already risen to the top of American politics, while Metcalf’s Hillary percolates with restless energy and frustration.

Throughout the smart and empathetic Hillary and Clinton, the need for Hillary to tell her story, and what that should be, keeps arising. Hnath’s version may not be what actually happened, but it couldn’t be more truthful.

Until July 21;