Lucas Hnath puts a disclaimer at the top of his play “Hillary and Clinton,” which opened Thursday at the Golden Theatre after its 2016 world premiere in Chicago. Laurie Metcalfe says that the story we’re about to see takes place on an alternate Earth; since the universe is infinite, there are lots of Earths. Some are a little different, some are very different and some are just like the one we call home.
Before Metcalf jumps into the role of a political candidate named Hillary, Hnath’s words about alternate worlds come off as a gimmick — or an excuse for him to riff wildly on the real Hillary and Bill Clinton. He does do that — riff wildly — but more important, he also gives us a clear-eyed, incisive look at one of the most fascinating marriages ever. “Hillary and Clinton” rings both true and very imaginative, and before this saga is finished, that disclaimer at the beginning only shoots this pair into the cosmos. They take their place along any of the Bard’s tragic couples.
A few days before the Broadway premiere of “Hillary and Clinton,” the show’s lead producer, Scott Rudin, announced that he would bring a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to Broadway next season, with Metcalf playing Martha. Seeing the actress play Hillary opposite John Lithgow’s very understated Bill, you immediately start making comparisons between Hillary & Bill and Martha & George. I, for one, find the former duo more arresting, not to mention the higher stakes of their relationship. Much of their magnetism isn’t just what we already know about the real Clintons but Hnath’s heightened staccato language, which avoids expletives and at its best, especially when Metcalf is speaking, takes on the sound of human gunfire.
The surprise of “Hillary and Clinton” (here’s a spoiler of sorts) is that Hnath skips the 2016 election debacle to give us the Hillary and Bill around the time of her expected defeat in the 2008 New Hampshire primary. She’s stuck in a motel room with her volatile pollster-manager Mark (Zak Orth, being alternately sympathetic and outraged), who has banned her roving nuclear bomb of a husband from New England. Hillary disobeys that edict, and the “Hillary and Clinton” boxing match is up and running.
Hnath’s wildest deviation from the real story is bringing a character named Barack (remember this is an alternate world) into this New Hampshire motel room. The successful politicians Bill and Barack (the extraordinarily cool Peter Frances James) never say exactly what they’re thinking. Instead, Hnath gives their banter deep sewers of subtext. The unsuccessful politician Hillary, however, does tell the three men around her exactly what’s happening, using bulldozer efficiency to clear away the crap. No wonder she never became president.
The hows and whys of getting elected is the tragicomedy at the heart of “Hillary and Clinton.” It’s also the marrow-draining unfairness of this very unique marriage. In comparison, anything going on in George and Martha’s home doesn’t even rate a raised eyebrow. But like Albee’s couple, Hnath’s Bill and Hillary know how to coil together when it suits them. They resemble two tightly wound boa constrictors when Barack enters the room, for example. The real Bill and Hillary Clinton recently made the safe choice of seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird” on a recent trip to New York City. They won’t be seeing “Hillary and Clinton.” Ever.
Metcalf is alternately steely, frantic, no-nonsense, desperate and steadfast — and she makes every one of those transitions while looking simultaneously backward and forward. She’s cautious. She’s deliberate. She’s beyond smart. She will never be president.
Lithgow keeps it extremely light playing a Bill Clinton that would delight a Trump voter. He’s not the bumpkin John Travolta gives us in “Primary Colors,” but he does eat pizza, wears obscenely short jogging trunks and has no shame when it comes to seducing voters.
Joe Mantello directs. Once again, he’s the anti-Ivo van Hove. He’s the minimalist director who fills the stage with the playwrights’ words and actors’ performances. That’s an especially spectacular achievement here. Chloe Lamford’s moving box set is both monolithic and sparse, and an especially devilish directorial touch is what a mess the two lead characters make of the place with their discarded clothes (costumes by Rita Ryack), their fast food, their soda cans and their near-wreck of a marriage.