Playwright Lucas Hnath, has served his apprenticeship in theater by having produced at some of New York’s most reputable off-Broadway venues and at many out of town spaces like the Humana Festival and South Coast Rep.
On Broadway “A Doll’s House – Part 2” won him a Tony Award for Best Play. Now he brings us a highly imaginative, wise and witty comedy that is set on “some other earth” that might just possibly contain inhabitants called Hillary and Bill and Barack.
In the first moments of the play, the stellar Laurie Metcalf picks up a hand microphone to chat with us and to toss a coin in the air. When it comes up tails, she tosses it four more times; and its combinations of heads and tails, of course, vary. With as offbeat and simple a start as that, she poses the possibility that there are other earths out there in space, and that on one of them there might well be a Hillary, Bill, and Barack — people with whom to populate a play.
The lights shift, and we are in a hotel room in which Hillary, about to start a campaign to become president, is in debate with her manager, Mark, as to how best to overcome the odds against her winning the nomination. Her husband, Bill (an ex-president), will come later to help her out even though she and he have become somewhat estranged; and the current President Barack shows up, too, to wish her well.
Hnath’s characters’ confrontations are presented so well that we truly understand where each one of them came from, what makes them tick, and perhaps more importantly why we should give them all a listen, and why we should hold off on whom we favor until we’ve heard all sides of everything said.
A dream cast plays these four recognizable people. But because they all live on “that other earth,” what comes out of their mouths are words created by Mr. Hnath, and this is by no means a biography of anyone. It’s just a taut and highly entertaining 90-minute play that offers much food for thought — and very digestible food it is.
Ms. Metcalf drives the play with technique that should be studied by all aspirants to the stage. She listens, she thinks, she knows what to project and what to underplay.
John Lithgow, another remarkable actor, doesn’t seem to be acting at all, but he manages to let us see a dozen sides of his appealing “Bill” with bits of husband, lover, father, brother, confidante and control freak coming at us from all sides as the evening progresses.
Peter Francis James as the gentler Barack is also an actor with an extensive and varied experience and brings cool to the stage; but every now and then cool turns to cold and then to warm as he responds to the ideological rebuttals made by Ms. Metcalf’s “Hillary.”
I thought Zak Orth was fine too as Mark the campaign manager who spends most of the play at odds with Hillary. As we don’t get to see much of Mark that isn’t on the angry attack, my suggestion would be that he start a little less stridently, for as he plays now there isn’t room left for his “big scene” just before his final exit. Taken as a whole though, his performance makes him an equal participant in this quartet.
Joe Mantello is becoming the Elia Kazan of his generation for, like Kazan, he was a very good young character actor himself at the start; and he’s developed into a director who presents complicated characters in complex plays so that every ounce of emotion is researched and reached and delivered. He and his actors have also proven that they understand the value of silence and stillness to contrast with the blasting power of some of their heated happenings.
One unanswered question for me: The cover of the Playbill has on it a photo of John Lithgow as Bill seated and about to have a bite of pizza. There is no sign of Hillary or anyone else. The title “Hillary and Clinton’ rests on the wall behind him. It’s arresting, and we can’t help wondering, “Where is Hillary?” Perhaps next week the Playbill cover will feature her, and Bill will be off in the wings. But whether this happens or not, when it comes to the play, its director, and its stunning cast, I say a resounding “Yes!”
The Golden Theatre
W 45th St., New York, NY
90 minutes without intermission