I have a stumbling block when it comes to anyone – especially men – putting words in the mouth of a real-life woman. This gut reaction detracts ever so slightly from my enjoyment of Paul Rudnick’s brilliant Twitter sendups of Ivanka Trump’s supposed inner musings mid-photo shoot, and even Laura Benanti’s spot-on spoofs of Melania Trump on the The Late Show. So I have to hand it to Lucas Hnath for his clever workaround in imagining a pivotal phase of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
Laurie Metcalf enters from the wings (not yet in character), turns on the stage lights, and – after woefully tracking down a working mike – posits the cosmic probability of infinite alternate universes in which there might be another Earth “like this one but slightly different” and on that planet “a woman named Hillary” married to a certain Bill “who used to be president” … you get the picture.
The audience has been released from verisimilitude and Hnath is free to riff on the challenges that the actual Hillary Clinton — the country’s first female presidential candidate – might have faced when Barack Obama first pulled into the lead.
Midway through her distancing intro, Metcalf segues into the “I” of this Hillary – and yet she never approaches or even attempts an outright impersonation. No one does – not John Lithgow as Bill Clinton, Zak Orth as Hillary’s campaign strategist Mark Penn, or Peter Francis James as an urbane Obama (excellent portrayers all). In his stage directions Hnath explicitly forbids imitation, lest easy apery lend itself to “a facile tabloid reality.”
Unencumbered, the words and feelings fly. They’re specific to the situation, but also evocative of every relationship plagued by a power imbalance, which is to say — the feminist strides of recent decades notwithstanding – virtually every contemporary heterosexual coupling.
The ways in which interpersonal boundaries in any intense relationship are tested, breached, and tentatively mended, only to be torn apart again – these vicissitudes have a universal resonance, and it’s fascinating to observe this particular Hillary strive to hold her own against a man unshakably confident of his irresistible, seemingly effortless likability. She’s fiercely intelligent, driven, and even – as suggested in a strategic (though wholly fictitious) lie enacted here – ruthless in her quest for recognition and agency.
Such attributes might add up to an optimal resume for a would-be Chief Executive, and yet ultimately, it’s the visible chink in the “real” Hillary’s armor – evidenced in that widely publicized “tearing up” incident at a fundraising lunch – that tips popular opinion in her favor. Briefly.
The male Clinton – note how he gets sole custody of the surname in Hnath’s title – professes that he would like to see more of that vulnerability, not just in public but in private. Yet clearly it was he who, with his foolhardy self-indulgence, caused Hillary to assume her particular carapace,
“What’s the first thing that people will think when they hear your name years from now?” the stage-version Penn demands, fed up with the intrusions of Hillary’s overbearing, meddlesome spouse. “They’ll remember you for fucking around. “
In real life, the public Hillary had to put on a game face. For the private woman, as limned here by Hnath, all is far from forgiven. The minute Hillary lets herself be authentic – on demand – painful memories pour out.
Hers is a predicament that many women, even those not subjected to public scrutiny and humiliation, are likely to find familiar – and infinitely frustrating. Maybe the men in the audience will learn something about listening and relating, as opposed to insisting that women achieve the Teflon façade they perversely claim to value and yet so rarely manage to achieve themselves.
Within Hnath’s clever alternative universe, at least, this Earth’s halting trajectory toward emotional and political gender parity is effected by means of a great many guilty but highly enjoyable laughs.