Heidi Armbruster, Mia Barron, Victoire Charles, Jorge Cordova, Charlie Hudson III, Jenny Mercein, Darren Pettie, Josie Whittlesey
In case you didn’t get enough of Mrs. Clinton in this year’s action-packed presidential primaries season, now there’s a chance to see a radically different take on the cultural and political powerhouse that is Hillary.
If the Hillary character Wendy Weiner’s new play Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With A (Somewhat) Happy Ending, now playing off-Broadway in a production by theatre company New Georges, is significantly more nuanced than the one we so often see on TV, it’s in no small part because Weiner has taken an age-old, fresh-feeling approach to the ups and downs of Hillary’s feminist political career by imagining her story as a personal war between the influences of Greek gods Aphrodite and Apollo, resetting her story in an alternate world where the gods still reign behind the velvet ropes and the ticker tape of politics.
As a child, Hillary wants to be an astronaut, her dreams stricken down by a formal rejection letter from NASA and her father’s admonishment that if she wants to make it in a man’s world she’ll have to act more like one. Her early successes, especially a stint at Harvard Law, come as a result of both a pledge bookish young Hillary makes at the altar of Athena, goddess of war, and her personal mantra, “Emotions are stupid and I am smart.”
Soon, spiteful of Hillary’s reproach, Aphrodite sends love to Hillary in the form of fellow Harvard student Bill Clinton, who “brought out her wild side,” the two of them bonding over Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The only obstacle between their love is Bill’s bizarre weakness. He believes that, because he wore a bathing suit (covering his bits and pieces) while his mother dipped him in the local hot springs, he wasn’t absolved of his natural desire for excessive womanizing, a trait that threatens to end Bill and Hill’s marriage before it’s even begun.
Further roadblocks include familiar Clinton adversaries — Jennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and ultimately Kenneth Starr, all of whom — along with a plethora of other characters — are portrayed by an able four-person chorus. Hillary’s idol Eleanor Roosevelt also makes a brief cameo appearance.
Hillary works so well because it maintains a seesaw balance between comedy and pathos. Though Hillary and Bill are more often than not portrayed as caricatures of themselves (besides for an embarrassing scene involving Bill’s impeachment testimony and junk food), they’re essentially grounded in truth. When Hillary finds Bill’s indiscretions too hard to bear, it’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking that her chosen remedy is to sell the two halves of her heart to the goddesses.
Though Darren Pettie’s portrayal of Bill is a tad more spot-on mimickry-wise than Mia Barron’s as Hillary, it’s ultimately of little importance that the actors look and sound like their real-life counterparts (neither comes all that close in terms of appearance). After all, they’re performing in a history play, though it’s set in the not-so-distant past, and we all know Richard III never had a limp, though that may be how he’s traditionally portrayed.
The play ends with Hillary’s election to the U.S. Senate, well before her presidential run, giving an audience an appropriate distance from the material with which to view the included events with fresh pairs of eyes. What’s important is that the spirit is right, and this production achieves that with extra stride to spare. Hillary may not be a tragedy of the stature of Hamlet, but it isn’t trying to be, so it’s all well and good as is.