Who's Afraid of Hillary Clinton?

414_Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow in HILLARY AND CLINTON_Photo by Julieta Cervantes
From left, Zak Orth, Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow play the blood sport of politics in ‘Hillary and Clinton,’ on Broadway. Julieta Cervantes

Women and slaves, Aristotle believed, cannot be tragic heroes. Two millennia on, a tragic heroine is on Broadway, fashioned out of the living flesh and blood legend that is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Hillary and Clinton bills itself as kind of a comedy. But given the way things turned out on the world stage, a middle-aged, flawed heroine in fleece and slippers shaking a metaphorical fist at fate is pure tragedy.

Playwright Lucas Hnath's character is facing a very modern challenge. She is a woman trapped in a death spiral with her own meme and her spouse.

"My understanding of a tragic hero is someone caught in an interlocking network of circumstances, some of which are the result of her actions, some of which are the result of the actions of others, some of which are the result of being born into an unfortunate time and place," Hnath told Newsweek. "And no matter what path she pursues to undo these circumstances, every path somehow leads to yet another problem. Or to badly paraphrase and butcher Sophocles, every attempt to straighten a crooked branch only makes it more crooked."

Laurie Metcalf, who plays Hillary without the Midwestern twang, said she isn't miming real HRC but making art. "I was not beholden to do an impersonation, and that was freeing," she noted. "It is a fictional role. I did try to read up on what she was going through in 2008. I tried to get a feel for what it would be like to be in the thick of a campaign trail. I don't know how people do it. It is never-ending for years, and it's my idea of hell."

For comic relief, enter Bill. John Lithgow is tall enough but a little too lean, dragging a bulging duffel bag of political tricks onto the single-room set of a New Hampshire hotel room to beg Hillary to "be human" in order to win.

As everyone knows, that was the hardest trick for Real Hillary. When Bill reminds her that people vote with their feelings, not their brains, she snaps, "People need to grow the fuck up."

Hnath, winner of a 2016 Obie, said he never set out to write a bio-play, but this is a portrait of a real political marriage. And what a toxic stew it is. "We are trying to portray a marriage of two people who have been through a hell of a lot together and have a bond that a lot of people never will," Metcalf said. "Everybody speculates on them and their relationship, and I think Lucas did capture something. It is his imagination, but we have all thought about what goes on behind the scenes."

In portraying Hillary as profane and frustrated, the play is reminiscent of Game Change, the best-seller about the 2008 primaries by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. And Halperin was outed two years ago as a serial sexual abuser of young women in his office.

Hillary's political career was surely defined by overt and casual misogyny, but Hnath and Metcalf have created a female character with agency and flaws—someone, the play suggests, whose defeat might have had as much to do with bad timing and bad choices as victimhood.

Hnath and Metcalf insist that it's all art, but Hillary and Clinton gets a lot right about the real Hillary's tragic flaw: a reach that surpassed her grasp. The play opens with fictional Hillary musing about a parallel universe, one in which she can win.

We can do that too: Let's imagine another dimension in which Hillary realizes her natural talents suited her for the procedural Byzantium of the U.S. Senate, to which the voters of New York sent her for a second term in 2006—after she promised she would not quit to run for president.

Imagine that she had honored that promise and let someone else take the Democratic nomination. Imagine that a Democrat won in 2016. Imagine that said president appointed Hillary to one of the Supreme Court openings, from where she could exercise brain and heart without ever having to participate in the political circus again.

Instead, in this universe, six nights a week on Broadway, a fictional Hillary shakes her fist at the fates that made her want and not have. As Real Hillary must do most nights a half-hour's drive north, at home in Chappaqua.