Power. Election. Power. Primaries. Backroom Deals! Power! It’s election season again, and the media is overflowing with comment and analysis. After the surprise of the 2008 election and the disaster of 2000, this November’s battle should be one for the history books. Theater around the country is getting into the act, and we should soon be seeing a number of up to the minute examinations of the spectacle.
Philadelphia Theatre Company presents Hillary and Clinton, a serious critique of one of the world’s most talked about and confusing relationships. But Playwright Lucas Hnath doesn’t want us to take this as an SNL sketch. This is a serious, yet funny, scrutiny of people seeking power.
The humor is different from Comedy Central. Hillary, (Alice M. Gatling) is discussing her difficulties with her campaign manager Mark (Todd Cerveris):
Hillary: Why don’t we have any money?
Mark: We poll well with the poor. They don’t have any money. The other guy polls well with the rich and so he gets the money.
Hnath claims that his characters are not the real Hillary and Bill. The play takes place on another planet light years away from us. This, somewhat unnecessary, prologue allows the author and Director Ken Rus Schmoll to cast actors who bear no resemblance to their real life counterparts. In this version, Hillary is African American. And why not? This gives a juicy role to a terrific actress, and keeps our minds off the “impressions” that are so much a part of TV satire.
The 75-minute play examines a few days in the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. Hillary is losing badly to a charismatic black candidate, known here as “the other guy.” Her husband Bill, played here as a shlumpy puppy dog by John Procaccino, turns up wanting to help. Neither Hillary nor her campaign manager wants him there. Astoundingly, Bill is exceedingly popular with the electorate, despite the distasteful revelations of his active sex life. Bill wants to offer money, but that will be contingent on their accepting his advice as to why the campaign is going wrong; (Hillary needs to generate “motherly” vibes, with Bill actively jumping in as her “attack dog.”)
This structure allows Hnath the platform to examine many issues that trouble current voters. Here are just a few of the many subjects discussed:
Question: We refer to other candidates as Bush, Obama, or Trump. Why is she called “Hillary”?
Answer: Because she is her own entity, untethered by any past relationships.
Question: Why is Hillary, according to the latest polls, respected but disliked by voters?
Answer: She stuck with her husband in a questionable relationship, not because she loves him, the rumor goes, but because her desire for power is so great. A divorce would have pushed her to the sidelines. Above everything, Hillary has always needed to be President.
Question: Obama and Trump are skilled persuaders, who use the speaker’s platform with enviable skill. Why does Hillary seem like a 3rd-rate drama student, merely trying to remember her lines?
Answer: Early in her term as First Lady, she was blindsided by a crafty interviewer who asked her thoughts on her husband’s latest dalliance. Since she was totally unaware of this new affair, she did the natural thing and cried. The reporter laughed at her. At the time, this sort of media assault on a sitting President was unprecedented in United States history. Is it any wonder that the current Hillary is afraid to venture anywhere without a troupe of advisers and a carefully vetted script?
If you disagree with Hnath’s ideas, that’s all right. The purpose is to provoke thought and discussion. It will.
The final act of the short play centers on the complexity of the marriage, and why these two are bound together. Hopefully, Hillary and Clinton, will outlive its current timeliness, and still be performed 50 years from now as an examination of human beings, their relationships, and the quest for power.
The production is first rate. Director Schmoll brings his cast down center, nose to nose most of time, spouting Hnath’s lines at a dizzying pace. Gatling captures the torture of this woman, trying to change politics and continually frustrated by the realities of modern public life. Procaccino’s Bill enters the play seemingly weak and contrite. But when the occasion calls for it, he demonstrates the strength and political acumen that made him a memorable president.
Todd Cerveris as Mark, obviously based on Clinton manager Mark Penn, tries to bring a dose of reality to the campaign, which is difficult since the Clintons are so famous. No one knows where the person ends and “the image” begins. Lindsay Smiling as “the other guy” could actually do an Obama imitation if he wanted to, but is content to portray a canny political animal plotting through clouds of cigarette smoke.
The set and costumes by Arnulfo Maldonado believably create a night in an ordinary New Hampshire motel room, as does Tyler Micoleau’s unobtrusive lighting.
It is a banner year for Lucas Hnath. Hillary and Clinton opened in Chicago one week ago, while his religion play, The Christians, has just completed a run at the Wilma, a few steps across the street.
The election is upon is. Let the Theater Games begin!
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Hillary and Clinton plays through Sunday June 26, 2016 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at The Suzanne Roberts Theatre – 480 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.