“It’s just so good to see them,” was the reaction to the early minutes of Curious Theatre Company’s “Hillary and Clinton.”
No, we’re not talking about the wife and husband at the heart of Lucas Hnath’s play about Hillary Clinton’s struggles during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. It’s complicated (and not altogether appealing) to contemplate Hillary and Bill in the midst of our current riven and demanding presidential election season. “Have they still not left the stage?,” you may grouse, now more than ever. (Although, as this review headed to publication, there were fresh headlines.)
Instead, “them” refers to the quartet of gifted and game actors who performed the prickly work virtually (it’s prerecorded), finding ways to react to each other while not sharing actual space. “Hillary and Clinton” is as much about the power dynamics of a power couple as it is about the vexing bargains of national politics. It streams on-demand through Oct. 24 on Vimeo.
If you go
“Hillary and Clinton.” Written by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Chip Walton. Featuring Dee Covington, Eric Sandvold, Josh Robinson and Cajardo Lindsey. Streaming through Oct. 24. Tickets and link info at curioustheatre.org.
The play unfolds in New Hampshire, where Hillary’s primary campaign has traveled after the candidate came in a very, very close third behind John Edwards in the Iowa caucuses but noticeably in back of Barack Obama. Those vexing twins the polls and the pundits are starting to brand her a loser, and it stings. As she and campaign manager Mark strategize, it becomes clear that her staff asked the former president to scram, so the hopeful has her own shot at making history.
In an impulsive phone call, Hillary summons Bill back. Why she does this, and what it says about the codependency of these two political animals, is Hnath’s terrain. Divorce comes up a few times in the play. She can’t quit him, nor, it seems, he her.
As Hillary, Dee Covington smartly positions herself in the confining space of the Zoom screen in such a way that we notice her hands move in frustration during arguments. And there are plenty: disagreements with her campaign manager; vigorous disputes with Bill; perhaps even tiffs with fate. In fact, the play begins with Hillary holding a coin and riffing on probability and possibility, on infinite space and parallel universes, other Earths.
The energy of her gesticulating (which can’t be seen fully) suggests what’s slightly amiss here and reminds the viewer yet again of the many ways in which theater is a special bodies-in-space endeavor. The close-up/mid-close-up range creates a not-fully-satisfying betwixt-and-between effect. Even so, the cast works to push against the limiting frame. Eric Sandvold’s eyes brim with a hint of the hangdog, an expectant hope wavering just beneath the skin around his mouth. It’s not mimicry, but it does capture something about the quality of Bill’s contrition; the sorrow (faux, true or in between?) of a guy whose infidelities will never be fully forgiven and his charisma never fully repudiated.
Rounding out the cast are Josh Robinson as Hillary’s increasingly thwarted campaign manager, Mark, and Cajardo Lindsey as Obama. Of the virtual performances, Robinson’s intrigues most visually. From the start, his face does infinitesimal work as a strategist whose tactics aren’t succeeding with his whip-smart but worried candidate. He seems to be always watching the TV, the feed of polling numbers, in a sideways glance.
Perhaps even more than Hillary, Bill has a thing about Barack. Indeed, anxiety about the senator floats above a good deal of the couple’s conversations. As Obama, Lindsey doesn’t have a great deal of Zoom time, but when Barack arrives at Hillary’s hotel room to discuss a vice-president deal — or so everyone assumes — Lindsey delivers a compelling version of low-key savvy, of a brain-ticking awareness of his place in a room.
In his performance notes at the start of the script, Hnath puts some interesting demands on the theater companies — and, therefore, in a sense, on audiences. In a wonderful pull-back-the-curtain act, director Chip Walton puts those notes onscreen as a sort of prologue. Don’t let imitation rule the performances, the playwright warns. Don’t default to his lower lip bite or her sharp crack of a laugh. “Instead, imagine that the audience watching this play has never heard of the Clintons or Obama and that this is an opportunity to create these characters anew.”
How “new” any of these folks can be when they are still part of the national conversation and not merely in the tabloid way Hnath wants to remedy is debatable. And that’s not a failing of Curious’ virtual production but of timing. “Hillary and Clinton” premiered in 2016 in Chicago and landed on Broadway with luminaries Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the title roles in the spring of 2019. The play hasn’t aged well — yet. Though, weirdly, there’s still future time for it to, for its notes on a marriage (and a moment) to reveal wiser insights from a remove.
For this moment, the playwright’s request for us to curtail our relationship to these contemporary figures while he gives free rein to his invites some frustration, if not resentment. It’s like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant — or, rather, a donkey, or an … oh, never mind.
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