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Review: Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow Debate The Art of Getting Elected in Lucas Hnath's Political Fan Fiction HILLARY AND CLINTON

"If the universe is infinite," Laurie Metcalf, playing Laurie Metcalf, explains to the audience at the outset of Lucas Hnath's sharp and funny bit of political fan fiction, Hillary and Clinton, "then that means that everything that happens in it happens many times, over and over, and that that means there are an infinite number of planet earths."

Hillary and Clinton
Laurie Metcalf (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

"That means that light years away from here on one of those other planet earths that's like this one but slightly different that there's a woman named Hillary. And this woman Hillary is trying to become president of a country called the United States of America."

One might argue with the playwright's scientific theory, but the point is, of course, that for the next ninety minutes we should suppress the urge to fact check and liberally regard the "What if?" factor of Hnath's behind closed doors scenario.

But though the characters on stage aren't, in the strictest sense, the Hillary Clinton, William Jefferson Clinton, Barack Obama and political strategist Mark Penn we know on this planet Earth, and there is no attempt to imitate them on stage in director Joe Mantello's crisply tense production, the public and personal issues they debate are exceedingly familiar.

The focus here is on Metcalf's dynamic portrayal of Hillary. In a sense the "Clinton" of the title isn't literally Bill Clinton, but more of the combination of advantages and consequences the former Ms. Rodham has had to balance in associating herself with that name.

It's 2008, and the New Hampshire hotel room where Hillary (this is a first-name play) stays during her party's primary is represented by designer Chloe Lamford as a starkly bare box with every angle outlined in florescent lighting, suggesting that, for most of us, these people exist mainly in our television views of them.

"I'm the woman who used her husband to get into politics," is the way she describes her unavoidable public image to Mark (Zak Orth, excellent as the hard-nosed truth-teller). "I'm the woman whose husband screwed around. And I'm the woman who let her husband screw around. Why? Because I'm the woman who wanted into politics so bad-so bad that she would let her husband screw around because she thought that if she left her husband, she would have no chance of advancing her career."

After losing Iowa, the polls are saying that she's going to lose this one too because, apparently, that pesky newcomer hasn't paid attention to the memo that this her turn. Dressed for comfort in sweats and flannel, the exasperated candidate learns from her strategist that Barack has offered a deal that if she fades out of the picture, he'll make her his running mate. Mark thinks it's a desperation move. Hillary thinks she need to get her husband to New Hampshire asap.

As played by John Lithgow, Bill is a child-like figure who isn't comfortable out of the public eye.

"I just like being useful," he sadly groans, disappointed that with her rise, he seems to have been erased. The state of their marriage is simply summarized with his shy request for permission to touch her. She consents and endures his innocent expression of affection.

Hillary and Clinton
Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow
(Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Mark isn't happy having him around and much of what follows is the two men arguing over what's best for Hillary, the main issue being that while Bill fits perfectly into the public's perception of what a male candidate should be, his wife, though probably more fit for the presidency than her husband, has to struggle with not gliding into into the acceptable mold designed for women candidates.

Mark tries to cut down Bill's controlling arrogance by pointing out that history will remember his philandering over anything he accomplished during his eight years in office. And after he makes a risky public move that could sabotage her chances, Hillary questions her husband's commitment to getting her elected and, perhaps, accomplishing more.

"You know that, given the chance, I will eclipse you."

When a confident Barack (Peter Francis James) enters for a brief scene, he's less of a character and more of an obstacle to climb over or knock down.

One might wonder if, a century or so from now, audiences might be able to see Hillary and Clinton with fresh eyes, uninformed by public knowledge and public opinion. But for now, it's those previous opinions we hold that act as additional characters in this vibrant social commentary comedy about the job of getting elected.

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From This Author - Michael Dale