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'Hillary and Clinton' review: Great actors go to waste in downbeat comedic drama

Lucas Hnath's conceptual play fails to live up to the deep and objective examination it promises.

John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf star in "Hillary

John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf star in "Hillary and Clinton," a new play by Lucas Hnath.  Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

'Hillary and Clinton' runs at the Golden Theatre through July 21. 252 W. 45th St., hillaryandclintonbroadway.com.

Over the past two and a half years, Hillary Clinton has been spotted at countless Broadway shows, but it would probably be too awkward for her to attend “Hillary and Clinton,” a novel but slim new drama by Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”) set during the 2008 presidential primaries with characters that include Hillary, Bill and Barack. In keeping with Hnath’s explicit instructions, Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow (who play Hillary and Bill Clinton, respectively) make no attempt to imitate the couple’s looks and mannerisms. In the script, Hnath writes, “Play the text and not the persona that exists outside of the text so that you might elevate these characters beyond a facile tabloid reality.” He also compares playing Hillary Clinton to a historical character in a Shakespeare play.

“Hillary and Clinton” begins with a strange opening monologue which seems to have been intended to emphasize that the play is not based entirely on known fact, nor is it an authorized dramatic treatment. Metcalf addresses the audience and presents the idea that there are infinite universes and that the play observes “a woman named Hillary … on one of those other planet Earths.” In other words, it’s about the Hillary Clinton of an alternative universe — who just happens to bear lot of similarity to the Hillary Clinton in our universe.

Set in a hotel room immediately before and after the New Hampshire Democratic primary in early January 2008, Hillary argues with Mark (as in Mark Penn, her chief campaign strategist at the time, played by Zak Orth) about why she is losing voter support to Barack Obama. In desperation, she telephones her husband, who was previously removed from the campaign, for help.

For the most part, the 90-minute play is a tense and accusatory debate between a strained Hillary (depicted as stressed and lonely) and an out of step Bill about personality and perception. While Hillary insists that “the story I am telling is that I am prepared [to be president],” Bill criticizes her as “weird and wooden and stiff … cold and stubborn and guarded.” It culminates with a short visit from Barack (Peter Francis James), who attempts to convince Hillary to drop out of the race.

Hnath’s concept of asking the audience to explore the characters from a distant vantage point is intriguing, but the play does not live up to the deep and objective examination it seems to promise. It has a downbeat and depressing aura and very little occurs. Its criticisms of Hillary and Bill are painfully familiar and all the talk of universal multiplicity and probability borders on silliness.

As directed by Joe Mantello (whose numerous Broadway credits include the recent revivals of “Three Tall Women” and “The Boys in the Band”), Metcalf and Lithgow (each a two-time Tony winner) give performances that are vulnerable but otherwise forgettable in the context of their distinguished careers. But what can you expect from asking them to play the Hillary and Bill Clinton of “one of those other planet Earths”?

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