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New Broadway play 'Hillary and Clinton' debuts
NEW YORK - Bill and Hillary Clinton are getting the Broadway treatment - but don't expect pantsuits or Arkansas drawls from John Lithgow and Laurie Metcalf as the world's most famous political power couple.
In "Hillary and Clinton," Lithgow says, "You'll see no makeup at all, no accents, no imitations."
"The minute you do that," the veteran performer says, "that's all they're looking at and it becomes comical, it becomes a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch. We're after much bigger game than that."
Lithgow stars as the 42nd president in the Broadway production, which opens Thursday at the John Golden Theatre in New York. ITK caught up with Lithgow and Metcalf backstage on a recent evening just before the curtain went up.
The title of the show, Metcalf concedes, may be a bit "misleading."
"I think people think it's set in '16, and there's a lot of Trump language, and that might seem like too much, like you're OD'ing on that," the star of "The Conners" says.
Instead, the play by Lucas Hnath travels back in time with the Clintons to another political dimension: January 2008, when the former first lady was locked in a presidential primary battle with then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
A purple track pants and Ugg slipper-wearing Hillary Clinton is seen calling on her husband to come join her on the campaign trail, against the advice of chief strategist Mark Penn. Much of the play centers solely on the action inside the hotel room where the Clintons are staying as they strategize, bicker and embrace, attempting to pave a path forward for the White House hopeful's campaign.
"You see them interacting with each other, just alone," explains Lithgow. "And the great truth of the play is in a marriage, you're completely different from the way you are outside that marriage. Marriage allows you to be completely infantile, petulant, express anger ... express love, express insecurity and vulnerability."
"Superiority," Metcalf, 63, chimes in with a chuckle.
Amid the raw emotion, there's plenty of humor in the play, which comes with the tagline, "Primarily a comedy." At one point, the show's Bill Clinton, attempting to impart his wisdom on his wife about her likeability issue with the public, says, "People don't like people who make them feel like shit."
"How about 'people' grow the f--- up?" Hillary Clinton quips back in disbelief, to laughs from the packed audience at a recent preview performance.
The actors have both met Hillary Clinton before. A year ago, Metcalf says the former secretary of State was in the crowd at her show, "Three Tall Women." She calls Clinton "so personable" and "very warm."
Lithgow, who estimates he's met the Clintons half a dozen times, heaps praise on Hillary Clinton as "forthcoming" and "funny." He says he greeted her backstage in 2016 following a book reading: "That was two months after she lost to Donald Trump, in the period of the greatest trauma of her political life, and she was just as winning and relaxed as she could be. I was amazed."
The 73-year-old "The Crown" star says he and Metcalf like to think that they're "honoring" the Clintons with the play. Metcalf nods in agreement as she sits alongside her co-star in his dressing room, which has a real-life photo of Bill Clinton affixed to the door.
"Life has been very hard on them. It's also been very good to them. The play reflects both those things," Lithgow says.
Asked how they would respond to critics who might pan the effort as a love letter to the Clintons from a pair of left-leaning Hollywood actors, Lithgow replies, "It's so not political in that sense. It's not an advocacy play, at all."
"It's a very realistic play," he adds later. "I can imagine Republican voters coming in and being equally engaged by it. It's not like we're performing just for one kind of person."
Lithgow, who says he's a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, hasn't been shy about his politics. He calls the Trump administration a "catastrophe," exclaiming entire departments have been "eviscerated and politicized."
"I know that half the country disagrees with me, but I think they're nuts," he says.
"I keep wanting to say to a Trump supporter: 'Well yes, you love Donald Trump and you support Donald Trump. But would you want to work for Donald Trump? Would you want him as your boss? Would you want to answer to him on a daily basis?' "
But he adds his political views didn't drive him to the "Hillary and Clinton" role: "That's my politics, but that's got not much to do with how or why I perform in this play."
Lithgow says he's seeing who might emerge from the flood of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. "It's a terrible thing that we have to consider who can stand up to the great barrage of shit that's going to get thrown at them as soon as they start running against the current administration, because that's how they run for office," he says. "But hopefully there's somebody who'll handle it just right."
There's been chatter about if Hillary Clinton - a frequent Broadway theatergoer - will be among the audience at this week's opening night or at all.
Would Metcalf, a Tony Award-winning Broadway pro, be more nervous onstage knowing Clinton was there?
"Uh, yeah!" she says as her eyes widen.
Lithgow reveals that he spooked Metcalf a day earlier when he casually, and falsely, mentioned that Clinton was confirmed to attend that night's performance.
"This face went white with fear," Lithgow smiles, gesturing toward Metcalf.
"For one little half-second, she went for it. I was elated," he says with a sly smile.
A spokesman for Hillary Clinton declined ITK's request for comment about the play or whether she planned on attending. Before the show went into previews, the two entertainers say they offered through an intermediary to perform it to an audience of two: Bill and Hillary Clinton. "I'd still be happy to take an afternoon and perform it for them if they wanted to do it," says Lithgow. "Because it's impossible to imagine having them in the audience. I think it'd be too hard for them."
The goal, Lithgow says, is to "disarm" people and "let them see a profounder truth, not just about the Clintons, but about a lot of marriages, and about a lot of politics."