Lucas Hnath’s play “Hillary and Clinton” is trickily entertaining. The lure is looking for similarities between the real Hillary and Bill. Yet the best approach is not to expect a biography, but to regard the portraits as a fictional parallel to the lives of the failed candidate and the ex-president. With that perspective, you can get maximum enjoyment from watching Laurie Metcalf as Hillary and John Lithgow as Bill go through their often hostile but underlying affectionate relationship as seen by the playwright.
Metcalf gives one of the season’s best performances as Hillary, here seen fighting to assert her independence and dealing with demands that she be more likable in the primary battles she faces. Zak Orth is excellent as Mark, her campaign manager, who wants to keep Bill away from the scene and is angry when Hillary defies his orders and calls Bill to join her to help raise funds. Bill would like Hillary to get rid of him.
Lithgow is entertainingly convincing as Bill, whom Hillary both needs and yet resents when seeing him as thinking everything is about him, not her. The one area that has a biographical ring of truth involves Bill’s dalliances. One has little trouble believing that there must have been hell to pay between the real Hillary and Bill when the escapades were made public and she had to appear as the loyal, believing wife.
The play contains a wide range of brittle conversations, and director Joe Mantello keeps the scenes dramatically sharp while also emphasizing the inherent humor in the writing and performances. The author gives Hillary some tough lines that are guaranteed to elicit audience applause, as the play is heavily bent in her favor. Metcalf consistently makes the most of the colorful role, and comes across as courageous even in the face of probable defeat.
There is a political ploy involving Barack (Obama, of course), who shows up for a talk about Hillary deciding to be his running mate, or her wanting him to be her running mate. Peter Francis James looks a lot like the real Barack, and delivers his part of the confrontation effectively.
I confess having gone to the play with skepticism and an attitude of who wants to see actors playing people who are so embedded in our minds. But I was quickly won over by the performances and enjoyed being whisked into the fictional world of a parallel Hillary and Bill on the terms set out by the playwright. The drama turns out to be exceedingly pleasurable, with enough truths contained to create its own political and personal reality. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 9, 2019.