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From “Julius Caesar” to “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and beyond, theater has long given us fictionalized what-are-they-like-at-home glimpses of powerful politicians and their private lives. At their best, such shows can be both provocative and memorable, but the latest of them, Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” takes a self-evidently promising subject and misses every opportunity to make it dramatic. No matter how you feel about the Clintons, you’ll likely find it a once-over-lightly disappointment.
What is most puzzling about Mr. Hnath’s play is the episode from the Clintons’ shared life that he has chosen to put onstage. Instead of writing about the 2016 election, he’s turned the clock all the way back to 2008, the year in which Mrs. Clinton (Laurie Metcalf) lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama (Peter Francis James). What’s more, he’s sought to write what the marquée cutely describes as “primarily a comedy,” although that catchphrase is misleading: Shorn of its limp punchlines, “Hillary and Clinton” is the story of the complicated, apparently unhappy marriage of two formidably ambitious people, one of whom usually got what he wanted and the other of whom mostly didn’t.
As promising as this sounds on paper, it doesn’t work in the theater, in part because John Lithgow is playing Bill Clinton. Granted that theater is an art of illusion and that Mr. Hnath has very specifically instructed his actors not to “imitate” (his word) the people they’re playing, Mr. Lithgow’s familiar onstage persona, that of the comic WASP, is so far removed from Mr. Clinton’s down-home glad-handing that you spend much of the play wondering who thought it was a smart idea to cast him….
Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” is back on Broadway for the first time since 1988, and it probably shouldn’t be. It’s not a bad play, you understand, but no amount of high-class craftsmanship can conceal the fact that “Burn This” is a smiley-faced variation on “A Streetcar Named Desire” (neurotic-but-not-hopelessly-so dancer turned choreographer, secretly sensitive coke-snorting stud whose sexual prowess brings her back to life, nice boring boyfriend, happy ending) with a Sassy Gay Second Banana™ thrown in to confuse the issue. The four parts are respectively played by Keri Russell, Adam Driver, David Furr and Brandon Uranowitz, all of whose performances have a shallow, one-notey feel….
* * *To read my review of Hillary and Clinton, go here. To read my review of Burn This, go here.
Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow talk about Hillary and Clinton:
A TV commercial for the original 1987 Broadway production of Burn This:
Lanford Wilson talks about Burn This in 1987: