The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This new Broadway play about the Clintons’ marriage is as fascinating — and sad — as you’d expect

John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf as Bill and Hillary Clinton in “Hillary and Clinton,” now on Broadway. (Julieta Cervantes)

NEW YORK — Nevertheless, they’ve persisted.

And how? And why? These thoughts and questions form the thematic basis of “Hillary and Clinton,” Lucas Hnath’s riveting portrait of a couple of days in one of Hillary Clinton’s failed quests to be president — and more fascinatingly, of an enduring, turbulent marriage that we on the sidelines have spent decades trying to figure out.

It’s not an epic political tale that Hnath outlines in “Hillary and Clinton,” which had its official opening Thursday at Broadway’s Golden Theatre. Rather, in 80 muscular minutes, Hnath, author of the trenchant “A Doll’s House, Part 2” — another marriage play — is providing a mere snapshot. But in that fleeting picture, he embeds a persuasive case for the codependency that rules them both, one that allows their partnership to survive, even in the aftermath of embarrassing, even humiliating, disclosures.

And in the characterizations by John Lithgow as Bill and Laurie Metcalf as Hillary, under the direction of Joe Mantello, you’re treated to an engrossing psychological tennis match — not one that either of them seeks to win, exactly. They’re forever, it seems, playing to a draw. With splendid assistance from two other actors — Zak Orth as Hillary pollster Mark Penn and Peter Francis James, materializing for a meetup as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama — the play sketches an emotional/professional mind-meld that might keep a panel of shrinks busy morning, noon and night.

“Hillary and Clinton” is set in a hotel room in February 2008, just before and after the New Hampshire Democratic primary that, after her defeat to Obama in the Iowa caucuses, Metcalf’s Hillary had been expecting to lose. Deeply ambivalent about asking Bill for help, she reluctantly relents, for perhaps a variety of reasons, but mostly because she knows how sharp his political instincts are. So he arrives in her room, dragging a duffel bag and, in the towering Lithgow’s hangdog mien, craving a return to the political front lines.

But is he doing it for himself, or for her? In the mixed-up storm of emotion conveyed by Metcalf — who once again shows why she’s a truly remarkable stage animal — we get both Hillary’s neediness for Bill and a rage whose unforgiving energy has been worn down by time and exhaustion. They’re portrayed as knowing each other so well that in the sleek economy of Hnath’s language, they speak with that intimately ferocious candor in which longtime partners are fluent. They’ve survived their own public-private hell, but just barely. And now, damaged, they, in their separate ways, look to a Hillary presidency for healing and salvation.

“This is what I’ve been through, Bill,” Metcalf’s Hillary says, after she asks him whether they should consider divorce. “I don’t cry. I keep it together.”

To which Lithgow’s Bill replies: “If you’d just say all that out there in public, you’d win!”

Orth is superb, playing the pollster as if he’s Hillary’s protective but exasperated best friend — you know, the kind of pal you find in rom-coms, who knows how toxic the heroine’s boyfriend is even though she just can’t quit him. We would all be Mark in Hnath’s construct, thinking Hillary would be better off without Bill.

Except that we also know — maybe from our having lived with these two for so long — that their connection is passionate where politics are concerned, that his instincts, plus her tenacity, were for so long a winning combination. There’s a sense of them trying to restart this formula in “Hillary and Clinton,” because otherwise, the air seems to have gone out of their relationship: The playwright allows in a framing device for us to contemplate Hillary’s perspective on what hasn’t happened for her, as she tries to convince herself that her destiny is out of her control.

Our bearing witness to Hillary’s lasting pain, at a time of political eclipse for both Clintons, gives the play a fresh poignancy, and imbues it with a sadness that “Primary Colors,” Joe Klein’s juicy roman à clef about the Clintons that became a 1998 movie, never achieved.

Mantello, a director of nuanced impulses, stages “Hillary and Clinton” in a virtually empty white box by designer Chloe Lamford. It’s outlined in neon and framed by a black back wall; when the characters are finished with a prop, like a candy bar or a paper folder, they simply drop it to the floor. The real debris is of a more internalized nature.

The terrific James makes for a self-assured, almost supercilious Obama, who is surprised by Hillary’s New Hampshire win and suspicious of Bill’s sudden insertion of himself into the campaign. The tense exchange between Obama and the Clintons has in their portrayals the ring of political and marital truth, as the couple reflexively regroups in loyalty to each other and in protection of their brand. Still, it is Obama, projecting calm and magnanimity, who seems the statesman on the rise. As portrayed by James, his lighting is almost made to seem to come from within.

Even if “Hillary and Clinton” isn’t a celebration of a Clinton triumph, it is one for Metcalf. In her last appearance in a Hnath work, “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sequel to the Ibsen classic, she played Nora, a 19th-century woman returning unapologetically to the husband she abandoned 15 years earlier. Now she is playing a 21st-century woman with decisions to make about a man and a path. It is a credit to Metcalf’s gifts that maybe, just maybe, we understand a little bit better why Nora left and Hillary stayed.

Hillary and Clinton, by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set, Chloe Lamford; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Leon Rothenberg. About 80 minutes. $49-$299. At Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200.

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