NEW YORK • On the Fourth of July weekend in 2015, while Mrs Hillary Clinton campaigned in New Hampshire for the United States Democratic presidential nomination, theatregoers in Falmouth, Massachusetts, got a look at a work in progress about her – playwright Lucas Hnath’s play, Hillary And Clinton, now poised for Broadway.
Set in an alternate universe during the 2008 primaries, as she fights for survival against a charismatic upstart, it was a comic tragedy, and it could not have been more topical.
Hal Brooks, artistic director of the Cape Cod Theatre Project, remembers his audiences loving the series of staged readings. But he was so sure of the real Mrs Clinton’s odds in 2016 that when he thought about the future of this play, rooted as it was in a failed White House run, he had a concern.
He said: “Once she’s president, will anybody really be interested?”
Needless worry, that. Bad news for Mrs Clinton seems to have been a stroke of luck for the play.
Starring Laurie Metcalf as Hillary and John Lithgow as Bill, and directed by Joe Mantello, Hillary And Clinton arrives at the Golden Theatre next month amid a raucous cultural debate about gender politics and the double standard that women face.
Not a bad outcome, but a surprising one for a play that was written in 2008 and had to wait eight years for its world premiere – until Mrs Clinton was once again waging a primary campaign. Directed by Chay Yew, it opened at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago in April 2016.
Charles Isherwood, writing about that production in The New York Times, said Hillary And Clinton found Hnath in “unusually cautious” form.
But Chris Jones, in the Chicago Tribune, called the play “audacious, whip-smart, highly entertaining” and “an important piece of writing”.
It is a play that ponders how publicly tough Hillary has to be, how tender she can afford to be and whether it is possible to strike a balance that will not risk condemnation.
Guarded and battle-scarred though she is, the Hillary in the play is not quite the Mrs Clinton from the news. The same goes for the men around her – her husband, Bill, though he is still a thousand times more cavalier than she will ever be; her opponent, Barack (known in earlier versions of the play as The Other Guy); and her strategist, Mark Penn.
Like Hnath’s other plays about famous figures (Walt Disney and Isaac Newton), Hillary And Clinton blends fiction with fact, aiming to subvert what audience members think they already know.
All of the show’s full productions leading up to Broadway have cast Hillary as an African-American woman, a directorial choice not required by the script.
In his notes for the published Hillary And Clinton in 2017, Hnath sounds almost eager to discover how the play comes across to audiences without a Clinton candidacy hanging in the balance.
“Tread carefully,” he writes.
Hillary – the one in his world, like the real one – knows that stage direction well.
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