WHAT "Hillary and Clinton"
WHEN | WHERE Through July 21, John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO From $39; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Fine performances, but it may be a little too soon to put this bit of divisive political history under a microscope.
Think of this as an alternate universe in which a woman named Hillary is running for president of the United States, we're advised at the beginning of Lucas Hnath's "Hillary and Clinton" at the John Golden Theatre. Imagine you're light years away on a planet "that's like this one but slightly different," says Laurie Metcalf, greeted with such exuberant and sustained entrance applause you had to wonder whether it was intended for the actress or the woman she's playing.
Some of both, no doubt, though in all probability the audience at Hnath's intelligent but premature examination of our recent political past would have completely lost it had the real Hillary Clinton showed up. Hnath sets his play in January 2008, just days before the New Hampshire primary, as Clinton's campaign strategist Mark Penn (Zak Orth) confirms what she says she sees every time she turns on TV: "someone telling me I’m going to lose." He urges the candidate to refrain from calling her former-president husband for help, which is exactly what she does.
Enter Bill Clinton (John Lithgow, solid if not scintillating), a man who seems less concerned with helping his wife's campaign than proving his ability to come to her rescue. In a tight 80 minutes, Hnath offers a somewhat redundant dissection of a marriage that’s already been questioned by the world (it worked better in his "A Doll's House, Part 2," which won Metcalf a best actress Tony two years ago).
While making no effort to emulate Hillary in looks or voice, Metcalf gives the finely nuanced, thoughtful performance we've come to expect, convincing as the woman fighting to become leader of the free world. Never mind the idea of an alternate universe. Much of what takes place in the play, directed with a sure hand by Joe Mantello, seems to stick to the facts, notably her surprise victory in New Hampshire after crying at a gathering of local women.
More nebulous is a meeting with Barack Obama (Peter Francis James, coming a little too close to impersonation) in the sparely furnished white box intended to represent a hotel room (set by Chloe Lamford). Their negotiation involving potential capitulation might have happened, but probably not under those circumstances.
In the end, it feels too soon to be rehashing this divisive piece of political history. While Donald Trump is never mentioned, his presence is undeniable. At the end, Hillary seems to acknowledge that. "I'm starting to realize," she says, "that I live in one of the universes where I don't win." In our universe, we already know that.