Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath, directed by the acute, clever Joe Mantello, currently at the Golden Theatre, begins with hypotheticals. Women live their lives in hypotheticals. What Ifs! And this is how the playwright has his character Hillary, who neither looks like nor effects the ethos of Hillary Clinton (played by Laurie Metcalf in a stunning, invested portrayal) opens her discussion in a relaxed “down-to-earth,” “behind the veil” confession to the audience. She posits a “What if?” supposition that there are “infinite possibilities” in our universe.
Hnath wrote the play when Barack Obama was in the full swing of his presidency. Considering what occurred during the 2016 election, Hnath’s play is doubly prescient and its underlying themes resonate more loudly than ever. In 2019 despite #Metoo, perhaps because of it, as much as we’d like to, we cannot pretend that women and men have equality in our culture, especially in light of a Trump presidency which is a throwback to women’s oppression in various forms that echos throughout American History.
For many women, “What if” doesn’t really get a chance to soar to a triumphant conclusion because there are an infinite number of “not possibles” preventing it. The sheer will that is required for women to overstep the “not possibles” is shattering. This is even so in an alternate universe of cultural equanimity, where it is a given that women succeed in obtaining leadership positions because men always lay down their egos and encourage them to do so.
Hnath subtly spins themes about paternalism and gender folkways in his subtle yet not so subtle fictional/nonfictional work. He does this aptly by hypothesizing about one of the most brilliant, competent and ambitious of women in the “free” world living today. Like no other in the political arena, Hillary Clinton embodies the possibilities of power and the smash downs to achieve it. Why is this, Hnath asks sub rosa? He answers this by factualizing his perception of Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Bill Clinton in the service of reminding us about women leadership and competence, about male ego and dominance, about the underlying primal realities of paternalism and male oppression and womens’ attempts to overcome.
At the play’s opening, an always on point Laurie Metcalf as Hillary, posits the probability that on another planet earth somewhere in our universe of “infinite possibilities” there is a Hillary running for the Democratic Party nomination during the 2008 primaries. Hillary, in competition with a man named Barack is losing. With Mark Penn (Zak Orth portrays the shambled-looking, frustrated and stressed campaign manager) Hillary attempts to determine the truth about why she is losing and how she will be able to recoup further losses if she can get more funds to refill her dwindling coffers.
After Mark offers explanations of her loss from his perspective, he indicates that perhaps it is not as bad as she suspects. The Obama campaign actually is daunted by her and has offered an opening for her to be his running mate when he is nominated if she drops out of the next two races and slowly fades away. Hillary interprets this to mean the Obama campaign is circling in for the “kill,” and expresses outrage that she might take such a deal. Despite Mark’s protestations she interprets it to mean she is going down for the count. Mark warns her not to call Bill for help and she promises not to.
Twelve hours later, Bill (the wonderful Lithgow) who previously had been kicked off the campaign, shows up in New Hampshire to the starkly minimalistic hotel room (which indicates a lack of funds). When he swears they stayed there before, we consider perhaps this is a backhanded reference to his own campaign in the primaries which he successfully won. In small measure he is forcing her to “eat crow” that she needs him. Then he chides her and expresses his ire at having been thrown off the campaign by Mark.
Their clashes are revelatory. In these discussions they cover a myriad of intriguing subjects: her fear of losing, their lives together, his boredom, her personality, her lack of fire and warmth, that he exhausts her, references to his infidelity and strategies for the upcoming primaries to initiate wins. Some of the subjects are unfamiliar. Others we anticipate because we’ve heard talking heads discuss the Hillary “personality” problem.
Lithgow’s and Metcalf’s focused listening and responding to each other are particularly excellent during Hnath’s dynamic interchanges, well shepherded by Mantello. Importantly, in exploring the fictional/nonfictional complications of a marriage between two brilliant, competitive and ambitious individuals, Hnath reveals the conundrum. They need to be together, but also must be apart in their own identity and autonomy. In their wish to be themselves, they are also the couple in a shared unity and friendship which will end in uncertainty for Hillary and loss for Bill if they separate. The public trust has glued them together as one. Their bond is intangible and ineffable and Hnath particularly suggests this with great sensitivity.
Hnath grounds their arguments, thrusts and parries with homely marriage tropes which we identify and empathize with. They are intensely human, real, warm, vibrant, competitive, loving (their costumes suggest the “all masks off” feel). Underlying all of it are dollops of frustration, wrath, annoyance and fear thrown in for good measure.
Threaded throughout we understand that these two have a profound relationship based on many similarities and attractions based on differences. They have a mutual care and concern that is their greatest grace and their underlying curse. Indeed, Hillary, in anger wishes she could break away from the stench of Bill that follows her. But when he suggests to succeed she must get a divorce, she avers. It is a fascinating moment; for as she states, she knows that many would support this and believe this is the right action for her to take. However, she cannot; she states she will be with him forever. For that he is beyond grateful.
Into this mix is thrust the knowledge of a phone call between Hillary and Obama, during which Hillary accepted Obama’s offer to be his running mate. Upon this everything turns.
When Bill steps into the campaign and gives her what she initially requested, he also oversteps his bounds causing rifts between Mark and Hillary. This causes a surprising series of events, one of which includes Barack coming to their hotel room to talk. Barack is portrayed by Peter Francis James in an interesting turn and resemblance to Obama in demeanor and stance. Barack confronts Hillary about the offer to be his running mate and the change in the fortunes of a race, after Bill becomes involved. He also reveals a tidbit of information that landed in his lap, information which will haunt the Clintons in the future.
There is no spoiler alert. You will have to see how Hnath arranges the chips to fall in this climax and how all of what we’ve seen before of their ties that bind, play out.
The play which expands on the premise of “infinite possibilities,” ends on it. From Hillary’s initial flipping of the coin that turns up a 50/50 heads/tails pattern of probabilities, we follow a series of events that decry any possibility of the coin toss dealing Hillary a winning hand. Hnath has brought us closer to explaining why she is not a winner this time, nor a winner in 2016, nor ever unless the earth tilts differently on its axis to produce another earth where Hillary somewhere “over the rainbow” on another earth is president.
Hnath allows us to fill in the unanswerable uncertainties and questions which he leaves open and encourages us to hope for in his poetic “on another earth Hillary is president.” For me this is heartbreaking especially now with the Mueller Investigation revealing a massive Russian warfare campaign to interfere with the election to put Trump in as the president, the results of which we are being deprived of in its full form. Indeed, Hillary lost the 2016 election on planet earth. She did this, perhaps for the reasons suggested intriguingly in the play.
However, Hnath’s powerful work and framing it with the backdrop of probabilities reveals more in what it doesn’t discuss because it was written before we understood what forces were ranging against the United States. Probabilities set up in coin tosses are random. What happened in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss (which is never alluded to in the play) is far from a probability. As more of the facts come out (despite the struggle to obfuscate and obstruct the report by the administration) her loss appears to be an inevitability…an inevitability which various illegal forces would go to extreme lengths to bring about.
That this production is being presented now at the height of the issues with the release of the Mueller Report Investigation and the DOJ? Well! This is fascinating and curious. And it leads me to this theme: there is more to what appears to be so, what pundits say is so and what “the facts” are depending upon who “owns” them. In Hillary and Clinton, Hnath presents the “What If” and allows us to consider what the character Hillary says about running again at some point. She would like to; she must understand how to get there to win.
This forces us to ponder what happened in 2016 and then the character Hillary brings us back to the coin toss which makes her president on another earth. We go with Metcalf’s Hillary for one second, then are dropped into the pit of reality. She isn’t president. And why not? Because of Bill? Because of her personality? Because of the Clinton Foundation? Because of paternalism? Because she is a woman? Sure!
To my mind, Hillary Clinton’s loss was less about her personality and her relationship and Bill’s “stench” and more about what forces didn’t want her in and why not. All the ultra-conservative social media groups, Russian Intelligence institutions, Russian hackers, Republican Think Tank strategists, elite globalists and like-minded billionaire Americans were poised to prevent her win with systems “ON.” It was a monumental effort that is mind blowing. And very costly.
That’s why Hnath’s character Hillary tossing a coin at the beginning and conclusion of the play is brilliant in theme and profound message. It is frightening, heartbreaking and an eye-opener, however you frame the “What if.” There will never be a “What if” for Hillary. There is no alternate universe, earth or whatever. We must deal with what is and get to work about it.
Laurie Metcalf is gobsmacking; she’s nominated for a Tony, Drama Desk and Drama League for “Best Actress in a Play.” Lithgow is superb. Able assists, Zak Orth and Peter Francis James make this a play you must see. Hillary and Clinton will make you think; it will open your eyes. And as it did for me, it may break your heart.
Terrence McNally is a theatrical force of nature, though with his incredible humility in an age of self-promotion, he would be the last to admit it. With a career spanning six decades and major, ground-breaking successes on Broadway and Off, in film and television, and multiple theater awards every decade, the man is a dynamo, beloved by actors whose careers he has vaulted, actors whom he collaborates with in a symbiotic relationship again and again. At 80, he is still working, attending productions (I saw him in the audience of the musical production of the most Tony nominated musical SpongeBob SquarePants this summer.) and launching off into new projects, even as I write this.
The World Premiere Every Act of Life directed and written by Jeff Kaufman was given a special screening at Tribeca Film Festival 2018, with luminaries, actors and McNally himself attending for the Q and A afterward. In this formidable documentary about a formidable American playwright, Kaufman presents McNally’s career and personal life. From start to finish Every Act of Life is an intriguing and well-thought-out chronicle cobbled together with interviews, archived photos, video clips, well-researched facts, details, memorabilia and well-placed commentary by actors, directors, producers and McNally himself. The documentary is especially revealing in its presentation of how one individual’s love and passion for the theater, opera, music and art has impacted our culture and brought us together in a forward momentum of shared communication and understanding.
Beginning with his early plays and traveling right up to his most recent work, Kaufman lays out the seminal moments and turning points that have slowly fostered the personality and character of this mild-mannered and charmingly authentic persona that McNally is today. Early influences on his life McNally credits to his English teacher in Corpus Christi who encouraged him to write and attend schools outside of the area. But his love of musicals and Broadway, were initially inspired by his parents, transplanted New Yorkers, who brought him all the way from Texas to New York to see a few smash musicals with towering figures like Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I and Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.
The excitement and enchantment of live theater musicals were imprinted on his memory. And this love abides with him to this day as he continues to collaborate on musicals writing the book for numerous hits like The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), The Visit (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2011), Anastasia (2017). He has also sharpened his wits and taken up collaborating on opera, for example in 2015, the production of Great Scott (music by Jake Heggie), premiered at Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas. He is a veritable tornado when it comes to writing new plays and collaborating with composers on musicals and operas.
Following his English teacher’s advice, McNally attended Columbia University and was further shepherded by professors like Lionel Trilling for literature and Andrew Chiappe who steered him in the basics by having McNally and others read every work by Shakespeare in the order of their composition. After Columbia, McNally through a serendipitous introduction via The Actor’s Studio, cruised with John Steinbeck and family around the world as he tutored Steinbeck’s two young sons. This was another incredible experience which was to shape McNally’s writing career and broaden his horizons as well as establish his relationship with Steinbeck who inspired his writing. From these adventures he later fashioned the first act of And Things That Go Bump in the Night. Additionally, Steinbeck asked him to write a libretto for a musical adaptation of his novel East of Eden. One doesn’t know what one can do until a great American novelist like John Steinbeck asks you to do it.
Back in New York City, McNally used his connections at the Actor’s Studio to begin to workshop his nascent one-act plays. And it was in New York that he met the brilliant playwright Edward Albee who was just coming into his own. After a four-year tempestuous relationship during which Albee wrote The American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they parted ways and McNally’s career began to take off gradually in theater, television and in film as he wrote screenplays for versions of his works first performed on Broadway and Off Broadway.
Various tidbits appear in Kaufman’s documentary that fascinate. Some of the impressions are telling. He became addicted to alcohol and at a time when no one could admit to being gay, McNally confronted the oppressions of the culture and created some of the most insightful, poignant and endearing works related to the LGBT community and relatives confronting the AIDS epidemic. These include the TV miniseries Andre’s Mother for which he won an Emmy and later his Mothers and Sons starring Tyne Daly based upon the miniseries. Additionally, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, as well as an inside look at gay relationships for which he won his second Tony Award, Love! Valor! Compassion! also feature topics about confronting gender prejudice.
Always concerned about the deep side of the human condition and striving above it, McNally first landed on the map when he was recognized for his portrayal of female-male relationships among the working classes (Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune) which was adapted into a screenplay starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. McNally’s versatility and humanity encompasses play topics that run the continuum. What is most important to him is human connections and the realization that we are together in this “thing” referred to as life. The beauty of our ability to connect, express love, overcome personal issues and adversity, with an assist from art and theater makes all the difference in discovering our purpose and fulfillment.
McNally’s dogged fight for LGBTQ rights at a time when it was most unfashionable and nearly anathema is an incredible achievement, considering the forces and money behind the attempt to liquify LGBTQ rights in the noxious march toward inhumanity and darkness led by the political conservative right-wing. Kaufman highlights the struggle. He also reveals how McNally overcame his addiction to alcohol and on that subject includes an amazing anecdote. Angela Lansbury’s love and honesty prompted her to speak directly to McNally to the effect that he must stop destroying himself. Indeed, she feared this most talented playwright, librettist and screenwriter would die an early death. Her influence and other factors eventually sent him down the road to wellness, where others were not as willfully fortunate.
What I appreciate in the film is McNally’s candor in discussing his “flops.” Of course, one might say that there are no flops in a playwright’s repertoire, only stepping stones which help them achieve their hard won success.
Kaufman highlights McNally’s award-winning work (the musicals- The Kiss of the Spider Woman-1992 and Ragtime-1997 and his plays, Love! Valor! Compassion!-1994, Master Class-1995 and Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams-2005). The most incredible feature of this segment of the documentary is the commentary by living legends and McNally friends and collaborators, Chita Rivera, Nathan Lane, John Glover, Tyne Daly, John Kander, F. Murray Abraham, Joe Mantello, Angela Lansbury, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald and many more. Indeed, the film is a who’s who of McNally’s posse, as well as a chronicle of his prodigious work ethic and love of theater, opera, ballet and music. His talents and breadth of knowledge about the Arts are absolutely staggering. And Kaufman gives us a historical perspective that is continually fresh and exciting.
I loved this film. I am familiar with McNally’s work having seen a number of his musicals and comedies on Broadway and Off. I split my sides enjoying them. However, Kaufman digs deep into the revelation of the anointed genius of this most wonderful of playwrights who connects the heavens to humanity with his words, impressions and inspirations, and joins us together in what can be compared to a holy act of communion in the theater. The film is a must see, and you will especially enjoy hearing how McNally and friends worked together to create some of the finest, most enduring works of American theater which in the future will surely be identified as classics.
After the World Premiere Screening there was a Q and A moderated by Frank Rich, who was a longtime critic of theater at The New York Times. McNally made an incredible admission during the Q and A. Even though he has a prodigious body of work trailing in his wake, he never really considered himself a playwright or a successful one at that, until a few years ago. I was gobsmacked. Such is the talent and evolving genius of this artist.
That Frank Rich was moderating individuals he has sometimes dunned in his previous job as New York Times Theater critic was a bit of an irony. He long held sway as THE Times CRITIC until 2011. Often he was acerbic and unwieldy in his self-aggrandizement and pretensions to be THE VOICE of theater, backed by the “heft” of The Times. After I accomplished some gentle research for this review, I discovered a note in Wikipedia on Kiss of the Spider Woman (musical) that bears sounding since the main subject of this film is American Theater and Terrence McNally as one of the fountains where we might go for a revitalizing drink..
It seems that in 1990 Kiss of the Spider Woman was being workshopped at “New Musicals” at the Performing Arts Center SUNY at Purchase. New Musicals‘ goal was to create, develop and provide a working home for sixteen new musicals over four years. When New York critics heard that the play was being workshopped in its initial production, they wanted to see it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be persuaded not to review it despite the fact that producers, etc., were testing the waters to see what needed ironing out. Frank Rich and other critics filed “mostly negative reviews” of this initial workshopping of Kiss of the Spider Woman. Sadly, New Musicals, whose mission was honorable and vital for American theater and especially New York Theater, blew out and folded after the fiasco with Kiss. Don’t get me started on the state of American Theater and why it is that way.
Thankfully, two years later a producer developed Kiss of the Spider Woman. It went on in Toronto and The West End where it won An Evening Standard. It finally came back to the US where it received 7 Tony Awards and 3 Drama Desks and ran 904 performances, despite Rich’s reviews. Ultimately, the American public became the arbiter of the production.
American Theater has lost ground for many reasons and indeed, the gatekeepers, critics and money people have, for all intents and purposes, shot it to hell and drained its lifeblood. With the rise of Social Media, for good or ill, digital platforms and word of mouth continue to lift up productions so that their lasting value might be revealed to give them staying power. But it is enough? Rich went on to feather his own nest. Kiss of the Spider Woman found its audience. New Musicals is no more. And so it goes. In light of these events Every Act of Life is an important documentary about the history of American theater, and a master creator who has thrived in spite of changing times.