By the way, in case you hadn’t heard — Hillary is black. I just thought you should know.
No, this isn’t some hysterical right-wing conspiracy theory. Nor is it a spoiler — you’ll learn it in the first few minutes of Lucas Hnath’s sly, provocative Hillary and Clinton. Rather, it is a given circumstance — one of several elements designed to remind the audience that Hnath’s H&C are not our H&C.
There are similarities, though. This Hillary is running for President, and — on the eve of the New Hampshire primary — facing an uphill battle. She, too, is married to a former President named Bill Clinton, who on many levels is proving to be both an asset and a liability. Mark, Hillary’s Toby Ziegler-ish campaign manager (played here by Todd Cerveris, whose delivery of the motor-mouth monologues feels effortful), urges her to distance herself from Bill, but it’s not that easy.
On first glance, Hillary and Clinton is clever but slight, and it’s reasonable to wonder exactly what Hnath wants us to take away. I’ll give it a go — perhaps in creating this doppelganger world, he’s giving us the distance to think about the real Hillary Clinton as though we don’t know her — it’s a tacit acknowledgement of the baggage she carries, in particular the amorphous yet stubbornly persistent idea that she’s not likeable. (Actress Alice M. Gatling is, indeed, an appealing presence — forthright yet sympathetic.)
Hnath also seems intent on showing us the ugly underbelly of politics more generally, but this is where the play is weakest — he hasn’t anything to say that we haven’t already heard, and the reality (at least, judging by our daily news coverage) is much, much worse.
On the other hand, where Hillary and Clinton really scores is in its portrayal of Bill, who emerges as deeply flawed but fascinating — now aging out of his boyish appeal and uncomfortably out of the limelight, with no crowds to snake-charm, he’s searching for a new identity, and not altogether happy that his future is linked to his wife’s career. Actor John Procaccino is quite wonderful, and his performance is full of nuances — you might say that he channels the essential Bill while never imitating him.
This nearly-new play (it was premiered just last month in Chicago) could perhaps use more work, but seen here it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking, and confirms the impression I got from Hnath’s The Christians — a very gifted writer, who works in a short form (a single act, under 80 minutes long) but packs a lot into it.
In closing, I’ll offer Hnath a bit of unsolicited advice about those opening five minutes, in which Hillary lays out the play’s structure: lose the speech. We, the audience, can figure it out on our own — and the play will be all the cleverer for making us work a little.
Hillary and Clinton runs through June 26. For more information, visit the Philadelphia Theatre Company website.