Lucas Hnath is to genre as an eel is to the clumsy fisherman: one slippery bugger. In 2013, he wrote about Walt Disney mythologizing his own life and death in a screenplay reading in a conference room, but through digressive weirdness and theatrical elan, the piece went beyond Magic Kingdom satire. More recently, he penned a cheeky sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but its earnest queries about feminism and intimacy gave the lie to literary parody. Now the admired playwright depicts Hillary Rodham Clinton (Laurie Metcalf) running for president in 2008, poll-blocked by her needy, undermining husband Bill (John Lithgow) and outfoxed by that campaign ninja Barack (Peter Francis James). But don’t label Hillary and Clinton political drama. It’s not that serious. Then again, it’s not all that funny, either.
Hnath first hits us with a somewhat shopworn cosmic framing device. Talking to the audience through a microphone, Metcalf explains the theory of parallel universes, the notion that there are an infinite number of Earths on which an infinite number of realities might co-exist. “So, then imagine, okay,” Metcalf continues, “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.” This DC Comics folderol is mainly to get everyone in the room to accept that Metcalf isn’t going to do a stiff-necked Hillary impression, and Lithgow won’t adopt the lip-biting drawl of Bill. It’s a distancing effect. (Chloe Lamford’s hotel-room set is literally distanced from us. It rolls downstage after this preamble and the show proper begins.)
Metcalf may not be acting a caricature, but her default shtick – the amusingly manic, panicked, tenacious Everywoman – fits the character like a well-tailored pantsuit. Hillary is in a hotel room during the New Hampshire primary in January. She’s trailing in the polls behind Barack. The campaign coffers are running dry. Her overworked and frustrated campaign worker, Mark (Zak Orth, impeccable in his slovenly slump), can offer only focus-group sophistry: “I’d actually be more worried if we were winning too fast,” Mark spins. “As far as I’m concerned it’s good for you to be the underdog.” To which Hillary can only sputter, “So me losing is a strategy?”
Hnath is quite good at this punchy, stressed-out badinage and power plays behind closed doors. There’s more than a little Mamet in his theatrical toolkit. Against her better judgement, Hillary calls Bill for help … and access to funds. He shows up – all eight-feet-nine of Lithgow seem to fill the hotel room – and soon Hillary is fighting to retain control of the campaign spotlight. Barack offers her the VP slot if she drops out. She uses the offer to bait Bill into funneling money into her campaign. When she wins the New Hampshire primary, she turns the tables on Barack and suggests that he be her running mate. And finally, Barack reveals oppo research about the sources of Bill’s money that would be political poison if made public.
This fast-moving digest of political maneuvers from three presidential cycles ago is not exactly dull. The writing is tight and colloquial, studded with impassioned set speeches. The high point is Mark’s venomous takedown of Bill, who’s been working to get him thrown off the campaign. Bill sneers that after Mark’s dead, no one will remember him for anything. This prompts Hnath’s most cutting, provocative moment in the play, in which Mark bitterly reminds Bill that what he’ll be remembered for is not NAFTA, not Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but for “fucking around.” Having vented about the legacy of a “clown, a cartoon,” Mark excuses himself before he gets so angry, he might clock him. “And when I die, I will be remembered, but only as the guy who punched Bill Clinton in the face,” Mark concludes, speaking for many of us, perhaps. “And I don’t want to be remembered for that. I’d rather not be remembered at all than be remembered for that.”
It’s a good speech – like ones that Hillary gives about divorcing Bill and the dead space where her feelings used to be – but I still wish someone had punched Bill. Critics ought not to play armchair dramaturg, but there’s always a sense that Hnath is holding back, as if resisting the urge to go truly weird, dark or grotesque is more artful than just going there. During the very tense scene in which Bill and Hillary realized that Barack had outsmarted them, I wished the play would take a very sick and hard right turn. There’s a steak knife on Hillary’s room-service tray. Can we have a re-write, Lucas? Can Hill and Bill go all Macbeth on Barry? Give us some red meat for the last 15 minutes. I know it sounds very Adam Rapp, very Greek, but theater needs gushing arteries as much as fine speeches.
And here we come to the downside of Hnath’s slippery technique. He crafts an adult, intelligent play about Hillary and Bill’s private and public trials, but he’s far too nice about it. Over the course of 90 minutes, Hill and Bill argue, make up, discuss the campaign, but the end is never in doubt, and there’s a curiously defeated quality not only to Hillary’s hopes, but to the arc of the drama itself. In the end, Hillary and Clinton is the wistful, Thornton Wilder-tinged mediation on HRC that no one asked for. There are rants, jokes and confessions, but it doesn’t add up to much more than clever, lightly postmodern fanfic. (The same was ultimately true of A Doll’s House, Part 2.) If you expect ideological shocks or absurdist flourishes, you’d be better off watching Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.