By Lucy Komisar
You are hit by the overwhelming sadness of everyone involved in Hillary Clinton‘s 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign against Barack Obama. Playwright Lucas Hnath and director Joe Mantello create a landscape of utter sleaze and despair.
It‘s January. Even the hotel sitting room seems chill and desolate. There‘s one chair and the floor.
Hillary (Laurie Metcalf) wears a sweater, a country style jacket, baggy blue pants and slippers. She has a permanently distressed look. Metcalf makes her almost sepulchral, as if her brain were programmed.
She‘s talking to Mark Penn (Zak Orth), her chief strategist. His brain really is programmed. He tells her, We poll well with the poor but the poor don‘t have money. The other guy polls well with the rich and so he gets the money. US elections are about money, not voters.
Obama has offered her the Vice President spot if she drops out. And Bill Clinton is not speaking to her since she and Mark kicked him out of the campaign. Maybe it‘s his #MeToo past that was a downer, but he was a brilliant political strategizer.
In desperation, against Mark‘s advice, she asks Bill (John Lithgow) to come to New Hampshire. He arrives in jeans and black leather jacket, dropping his duffel bag on the barren floor. He is more likeable than Hillary, which was always the case. Lithgow displays a spark of real humanity.
Hillary gets curiously wifey: “What have you been eating?” But they seem to inhabit very separate parts of that small space. Metcalf is both rigid and curiously, touchingly helpless. Lithgow is distant but also surprisingly sensitive.
He says, “Can I touch you, it been so long, I missed you. She, I missed you too, Bill. He, I don‘t like being alone…I don’t see you enough.” This personal undercurrent is never followed up.
She wants him for money. “All those consultations for your charity work.” That of course is the Clinton Foundation that hit on foreign governments hoping to cash in when Hillary became President.
Bill says: “When you start to lose, you pull out…Don‘t let them see you rot.
Curiously, Bill declares, “The problem is you and your opponent are the same. It come down to personality.” Absolutely true. They had the same politics: court women and minorities and quietly support Wall Street, the rich and the American deep state project for hegemony, that is, we are the only superpower and it had better stay that way.
She says, “I have no interest playing this as likability context.” He calls her wooden. People don‘t vote with brains. Why should any of us care? It‘s never made clear in the play.
Then we get into the sex problem. As she remembers why she doesn‘t like the guy, she brings up “stories sleeping around. I had to go out and say you were a trustworthy fellow. I pleaded don‘t put me through that again. Six years later you did it.”
We never got to what the Clintons put America through, cutting aid to the poor, creating an incarceration nation, leading to the invasion of Libya that fired up a massive killer Islamic movement that is now linked to murder of innocents in at least 16 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, the US. Oh, well, the Americans didn‘t vote on that.
But she makes it personal. “Me cry. I don‘t cry, I kept it together.”
Bill says, “If you were to do that out in public you‘d win.”
A sad couple, a broken marriage, you feel sorry for her.
It‘s not real politics, but maybe it is, at least how the US mainstream media runs it.
Mark appears, annoyed that Bill has arrived without his knowledge or approval. He says, “People aren‘t interested in Bill like they used be. They‘re tired of him. And putting him with you will make them tired of you ” Its all PR and ad agency stuff. You‘re Hillary. Not Hillary Clinton. Just Hillary. That‘s your story.
In this an election or the script for a TV drama?
She: “I‘m the woman who wanted into politics so bad, I let my husband screw around. That is true.” Clinton, ever the good-ole-boy, is eating pizza out of a box. He says the cure to keep apologizing is never enough.
Hillary can‘t cover her resentment. And fear of being eclipsed.
Then Barack Obama (Peter Francis James, an amazing likeness, but rather wooden) arrives. Hillary lies to him that Mark got Clinton to come up to campaign. Bill says he didn‘t know of Obama‘s VP offer. And she does a take on Bill’s riff about losing: When you lose, you‘ll lose slowly…And so when you do lose with a long drawn out loss ” You don‘t get a second chance.
But ” if you drop out ” you can be my running mate. And You‘re a blank slate. [quite true] You haven‘t told people enough where they can disagree with you.”
Oh, is that so true! Tell the victims of the banksters whose runway was later “foamed” by Obama, (courtesy of insider Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) while homeowners were hung out to dry.
Barack pulls out a document and says, “…the gist of it Bill, is that you‘ve been receiving a lot of money in connection with this charity work, ….But where the money comes from … is where the problem is – because there’s a pretty direct line from one to the other that makes it look like you’re profiting from, frankly, some of the very worst people in the world.
Yes, Clinton‘s foundation got money from the Saudis and their ilk. Dirty stuff. Not that Obama’s policy would suddenly turn critical of the Saudis!
Each is telling the other to quit the race.
But then the melodrama. At a women‘s luncheon, they were asking her about balancing family with running the country, and the difficulty of doing both, and she teared up.
America’s brilliant (that is sarcasm) media, which loves to deal with real issues, plastered on front pages and TV that she had cried. She came from behind to win the primary! And that is a true story!
Don‘t know how much else of this docudrama is true, but of course the real sordid story is how both of these corrupt politicians attempted to manipulate voters (and each other) and how the one who succeeded was no better than the one who lost.
It‘s billed as a comedy. It‘s really a tragedy for Americans, a drama with policy never at issue. Where the public is stage-managed with sit-com style soap opera. Author Hnath writes this as the tabloids and broadsheets would. Alas, he is right.
“Hillary and Clinton.” Written by Lucas Hnath; directed by Joe Mantello. John Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened April 18, 2019; closes June 23, 2019. Running time 1:30. 5/22/19. Also on NY Theatre Wire.