Lucas Hnath Lets Actors Fight It Out Onstage
On March 16th, the play “Hillary and Clinton” had its first preview, at the Golden Theatre, on West Forty-fifth Street. Its author, Lucas Hnath, knew the Golden well, because his work “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a bold and witty sequel to the Ibsen drama, had played there less than two years earlier, and he had attended more than a dozen of the performances. Nevertheless, he wasn’t sure where to sit at the “Hillary” performance. “I still haven’t found a spot I like in that theatre,” he had complained to me, in an e-mail that day. “I’ll get there early and scope out a few options.”
Hnath, whose surname is pronounced “Nayth,” was excited to witness an audience responding to the actors, the actors to the audience, and both to what he had written. “I can’t fully hear the play without the audience,” he told me. A compulsive fiddler, he rewrites line after line practically until opening night. “I get futzy,” he explained. Hnath makes his antic changes with enough brio that they become a source of energy to the actors in his productions. “Did he tell you about his scraps?” Laurie Metcalf, who starred in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and plays Hillary in the new production, asked me. “They’re all brilliant. And he has a ton of them.”
Whereas some playwrights aim to produce solid works of literature that just happen to need actors, Hnath writes fluid works that, through the honing process of performance, become art. He is unusually open to suggestion but also protective of his vision. Scott Rudin, who produced both “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and “Hillary and Clinton,” told me, “If you ask him to do something that he feels is untruthful, it’ll come back at you like a boomerang. He has an enormous capacity to take in a good idea and to repel a lousy one.”
“Hillary and Clinton” isn’t Hnath’s only new production of the season. On March 7th, his play “The Thin Place” had its première, at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. (It comes to New York this fall, at Playwrights Horizons.) This past winter, Hnath spent Mondays and Tuesdays in Manhattan and the rest of the week in Kentucky. “Honestly, I can’t remember which play is which!” he said, on Skype one day, from a hotel room in Louisville. He seemed worried that he wouldn’t have enough time to polish either “Hillary and Clinton” or “The Thin Place” to his satisfaction.
Fortunately, the backbones of both plays had been in place for a while. “Hillary and Clinton” focusses on the moment in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, after the Iowa caucuses, when Hillary Clinton first fell behind Barack Obama. Hillary desperately wants success, but the key question, as in many Hnath plays, is how far she will go to achieve it. Two impulses compete in her head, personified by the two men who want to steer her campaign. On one side is Mark Penn, the veteran operative, who, in Hnath’s telling, urges her to make the unsexy pitch that she is the most qualified candidate. At the other extreme is her husband, the former President, who is intuitive, undisciplined, and over the hill. He reminds her that when she teared up recently, at a gathering of women at a diner, the public was touched. For him, forging emotional bonds with voters is paramount.
Hillary, like Nora Helmer, still loves the man she needed when she was younger, but the tether has loosened. In Bill’s case, the older he gets the more he loves and needs Hillary. The hallmark of a Hnath script is robust argument, but these debates are always infused by the stormy relationships around them:
Bill: You are missing an opportunity here to take the thing that I do well and use it to your advantage. When I ran, I won.
Hillary: Oh—! Going there are we—
Bill: All I mean is—what I’m saying is—
Hillary: If you were running today, you wouldn’t win. Especially against him. You wouldn’t have a chance.
Bill: He is me.
“Hillary and Clinton” is a new version of a script that Hnath wrote in 2008, when Hillary seemed likely to win the Democratic nomination. The play was first performed in Chicago, in April, 2016, when she again seemed poised to win it. Updating a play with such heavy political contrails was tricky: by 2019, the American political ecosystem had drastically shifted a third time. “I knew this play was dead on arrival if it even winked at Trump,” Hnath said.
Nor does “Hillary and Clinton” have the zippy sentimentalism of something like “The West Wing.” Hnath resists blunt appeals to emotion—the easy laugh or cry that resolves tension. Although his play was inspired by the Clintons, it is pointedly not a Broadway version of a bio-pic. Reality becomes a springboard for a roundelay of ideas. “I’ve always been suspicious of feelings,” Hnath said, adding, “Hillary’s voice is very much me.” Rudin told me, “Hnath’s theatrical language looks like naturalism, walks like naturalism, talks like naturalism, but it’s not naturalism.”
“The Thin Place,” drafted last year, is the story of a young woman with apparent occult abilities who befriends an older, professional psychic. In Part 1, the psychic confesses that she’s a fake—her work is just supposed to make people feel better—but the younger woman makes it frightfully clear that not everyone in the field sees themselves as a phony. One of the challenges of “The Thin Place,” Hnath told me, was similar to that of “Hillary and Clinton”: to make the audience uncertain whether what they were seeing onstage was “real” or pretend. They had to stay uncomfortable in their seats, as at a horror film.
Hnath is a master of Socratic dialogue, a disciple of George Bernard Shaw by way of Wallace Shawn. Hnath credits Shawn’s plays with teaching him how to make an unpalatable argument feel palatable for long enough that the audience “nods along to something that is questionable.” Hnath admires Shaw’s essays, but when it comes to theatre he feels a greater affinity for the Greeks. “I love the stripped-down approach that they had,” he said. “Someone will come forward and make an uninterrupted argument, and then someone else will come forward and make a different argument.” In “Isaac’s Eye,” from 2013, Isaac Newton and his scientific elder Robert Hooke spar over the nature of light. In Hnath’s breakout play, “The Christians,” from 2014, a doubting pastor tries to persuade his angry parishioners that a person can have faith without believing in Hell. In a Hnath play, you repeatedly find yourself agreeing with a pointed speech, then agreeing with its rebuttal. In “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Nora prophesies the death of marriage, telling the family maid, “How sad it is that we put ourselves through this completely unnecessary process of self-torture. Twenty, thirty years from now people will have many spouses in a life, even many spouses at once.” The maid responds, “Maybe there’s a reason why things are the way they are, why men are the way they are and women are the way they are.” Many playwrights promote the beleaguered liberal values of tolerance and skepticism, but Hnath enacts them onstage. This, you feel, is what it means to think something through.
“Hillary and Clinton” ultimately isn’t about which side of Hillary’s personality is the more electable but, rather, about the value of self-reflection in a shallow world. Whether Hnath wishes it or not, the spectre of Donald Trump looms over “Hillary and Clinton.” In Hnath’s portrayal, Hillary is sincerely concerned about the morality of manipulating the public. “The Thin Place” wrestles with a similar ethical question, suggesting that illusion is a compact—that you can’t truly be tricked unless you want to believe. This is not only how a play works but also how demagogues govern.
At the “Hillary and Clinton” preview, I found Hnath in the last row of the orchestra, next to his longtime dramaturge and friend, Sarah Lunnie. He has a long face and long, wavy brown hair parted at the crest; his chin is protuberant and cratered by a dimple the size of Chicxulub.
He can sound mystical about his creative process. At workshops, I’ve heard him say many times, “This line hasn’t figured out yet what it wants to become.” But he can also be stringently analytical. Playwright’s Input A should result in Audience Output B. That side was in evidence at the Golden, as the seats began to fill. (The preview was sold out.) I asked him what he’d be looking out for that evening, and he said that it was important that he not look for anything. He wanted to experience the play as if he’d never seen it. This, he emphasized, would be just the start of his process. “You have to watch several performances,” he went on. “Then take a step back and try to understand, on average, how the play works. It’s what remains consistent across many performances that tells me something useful. Tonight is one single data point.”
He hoped to next time find “a better spot” in the theatre. Another night found him in the stage manager’s office, listening to the actors on a monitor. He was rewriting their parts as they spoke.
Lucas Hnath is a name that theatregoers hadn’t heard until five years ago and now can’t seem to get away from. For a decade before his work was acclaimed, he held a day job to pay the rent. He worked at the Unemployment Action Center, a nonprofit on Mercer Street, which taught law students how to represent people applying for unemployment benefits. After hours, he wrote in his windowless office until 2 a.m. “Nobody was reading my plays,” he said.
He and I first met one morning at mud, a coffee shop in the East Village. It was the summer of 2017, and he was moving from an apartment on Avenue B to faculty housing owned by New York University. The school had recently hired him as an assistant professor of playwriting. “N.Y.U., in order to convince me to go on faculty, offered me an apartment,” he said. (He is currently on leave from his teaching position.)
At the time, he had six theatrical commissions. He was in demand and, he said, was revelling in it. But, in general, he does not particularly like to talk about himself; he is too conscious of the distorting effects of his own storytelling. Once, when sharing a personal anecdote, he said, “It’s funny—as I’m telling somebody else I’m, like, Wait, how did this happen?” Hnath’s voice is surprisingly soft and fluty—the declarative speeches in his plays had led me to expect more self-assurance, but in person he comes off as quite different from his characters. John Lithgow, who plays Bill Clinton in “Hillary and Clinton,” told me that Hnath reminded him of Bartleby the Scrivener.
A native of Florida, Hnath seems fated to have become a New Yorker. He has a driver’s license but is afraid to drive. “I like walking everywhere,” he said. His girlfriend, Mona Pirnot, is also a playwright, with a particular interest in science. “My recent full-lengths can be described as dramatized Wired articles,” she told me. The two have an easy companionability—wars of words are apparently reserved for Hnath’s plays. “We’re entertaining together,” he told me. “We’re completely nondramatic, in the right way.” They see a lot of theatre but don’t do much else. “I run up and down the Hudson and listen to podcasts,” he said. At home, he likes to put on the meditative loops of Philip Glass operas. Given this monastic sensibility, he surprised me one night at Becco, the theatre-district restaurant. Before seeing yet another preview of “Hillary and Clinton,” he ordered an all-you-can-eat special and had several helpings of penne Bolognese, spaghetti with tomato and basil, and mushroom ravioli. “It’s basically Olive Garden,” he said. “I like to see if I can eat more than I’m paying for.”
He was born Lucas Blanche, in Miami in 1979. His mother ran a recording studio, and his father also worked in the music industry; they split up when Lucas was eight. His father came from a wealthy family, which agreed to pay for Lucas’s schooling. His childhood became bifurcated. He attended Lake Highland Preparatory, in Orlando, but he and his mother, Dana, who worked various part-time jobs, were poor. They joined the Calvary Assembly, a Florida megachurch, and ate food donated by other congregants.
Lucas and Dana formed a universe of two. They were believers whose lives revolved around their church, but they were also outsiders—his mother had been a friend of the Bee Gees, an unusual background for an evangelical. Lucas, who loved theme parks and magic, found refuge and pleasure in make-believe. Disney World was seven minutes away. Hnath recalls, “It was expensive, so we would only go to the stuff you could go to for free.” He remembers that they discovered a back path to a swimming pool on Disney property. “We’d be the only people there,” he says.
One way that Lucas got approval from his peers was by preaching. By the time he was ten or so, he was giving sermons with magic tricks. “You do the candle-through-the-arm trick, and you give a mini-sermon about the armor of God,” he recalled to me, adding, “It’s not good magic, and it’s borderline heresy.” As amateurish as his performances were, he noted that the children’s auditorium at his church was larger than some Broadway houses. Other kids turned to him for spiritual counselling.
In 1989, Dana, who had joined a Christian singles’ group, met Richard Hnath, who had an information-technology job at A.T. & T. They soon married, and Hnath adopted Lucas and gave him his last name. (Richard and Dana divorced in 1998.)
When Lucas was a teen-ager, his mother decided to study to become a minister herself. He joined her at classes on Bible translation and hermeneutics, and enjoyed them. But few churches in the area permitted female ministers, so she had difficulty finding a place to preach. Lucas often felt criticized because of his mother. He recalls, “I had a lot of people telling me, ‘She’s breaking God’s law.’ ” He disagreed. He had read the Pastoral Epistle that supposedly made a forceful argument against female ministers, and felt that the text was less authoritative than it had been portrayed to be. This skepticism coincided with a time in high school when he began to read such plays as Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and Elmer Rice’s expressionist “Adding Machine.”
In 1997, he enrolled at N.Y.U., expecting to pursue medicine, but he quickly changed to dramatic writing. One professor, Paul Selig, recalls reading Hnath’s first play, “The Handmaids,” which he wrote in his freshman year. It took place in an imaginary kingdom and was about a woman who had cones for hands and couldn’t pick up anything. Hnath was influenced by the sadomasochistic imagery of the photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. “I was startled at the completeness of the vision,” Selig says.
Hnath graduated with a B.F.A. in 2001 and received an M.F.A. a year later. After working for a while at the Unemployment Action Center, he realized that being a “fake lawyer” was ideal training for an aspiring dramatist. “You know, somebody calls me up and tells me that they were fired,” he said. “I want to know why it happened, when it happened, and why it is reasonable to think you did the things that you did that resulted in you getting fired.” He added, “Building a case is a lot like how you build a play.”
In 2008, Hnath entered a ten-minute-play competition hosted by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. His submission was titled “The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith.” At the time, Sarah Lunnie, the dramaturge, was part of the selection team, which read through more than a thousand scripts. She came upon Hnath’s entry, which was based on a tabloid moment from the early nineties: the repeated effort by J. Howard Marshall, an octogenarian Texas billionaire, to persuade the twenty-three-year-old Anna Nicole Smith, then a stripper, to marry him. The play opens with Smith addressing the audience:
Okay. So before we begin you’ll need to imagine that the year is 1991, and that this theatre is Texas, and imagine that over there, that’s a strip club, and this area out here is the parking lot out behind the strip club.
And all of you are cars. . . .
Imagine also that I’m Anna Nicole Smith.
“Here are the reasons why you should marry me,” Marshall declaims, with no further introduction. Soon he is beseeching, and she is rejecting, and any expectation that these two figures will be mere cartoons melts away. The playlet is like a jack-in-the-box, startling you with the energy that pops from its short script. Anna says, “I have a kid. He’s 7. . . . And he said that he doesn’t like old people. . . . He says he’s scared that one night, you’ll die, and you’ll die in the bathtub, and he’ll go into the bathroom to pee, and he’ll see you dead.” It’s surprising how much of Hnath’s mature style is embodied in “Anna Nicole”—it creates a world that’s similar but not identical to our reality, and its characters are famous people who are not to be portrayed as they appear in real life. “There should be no attempt to imitate the actual people on which this play is based,” Hnath warns, in an opening note. Rapid-fire dialogue is slowed down by face-the-audience soliloquies, and the playlet focusses on the alchemy of relationships. (In college, Hnath took a course called “The Psychology of Marriage.”) The script even features Hnath’s heavy use of ellipses, which demarcate the rhythm of the dialogue. Lunnie recalls, “It was a distillation of his dramatic imagination.”
She asked to see more work. Among other things, he sent her “Death Tax,” about an invalid who believes that her nurse is trying to kill her. One advantage he had was that he wrote easily and quickly, and deleted and rewrote just as quickly. “Writing is like feces,” he told me. “You’re going to make it one way or another. There’s more where that came from. For me, it’s more about, like, the shaping of the stuff.”
Productions of “Death Tax” and “Isaac’s Eye” were soon mounted, each helping to establish Hnath’s sensibility. In all his scripts, his stage directions were minimal but his attention to pacing was fanatical. He extensively denoted unspoken moments, the way good screenwriters do. Hnath told me, “I kind of feel like my beats and pauses are the equivalent of cinematic closeups.” The stage manager at the Actors Theatre of Louisville told me that keeping up with a Hnath script is exhausting: “I’m constantly turning the pages of the script. ‘And what is this?’ ‘Dot. Dot. Dot’? ‘And this?’ ‘Dot. Dot. Dot. Question mark’?”
In 2013, the SoHo Rep presented a new Hnath work, “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” The play imagines four actors performing a table reading of a film script based on a memoir written by Disney. (The memoir is fictitious.) The intimate language of the theatre commingles with the distancing language of filmmaking. A character will reveal a deep wound, and this will be followed by someone else shouting “Cut to!”—and yet another character addressing a different subject. Hnath also draws on the audience’s preconceptions about Disney’s self-aggrandizing mind. In one surreal moment, Disney describes technicians severing his head before he is cryogenically frozen. (This never happened.)
Hnath was now collaborating with exciting directors and doing formally adventurous work. But, at least for some critics, his inventiveness could become irritating. Charles Isherwood, in the Times, said that the Disney story felt as if it were written by “a hypercaffeinated David Mamet,” adding, “The effect is of a record player skipping, as characters interrupt one another’s utterances.”
Hnath’s next play, “The Christians,” staged in 2014, proved that he could control his theatrical legerdemain. It was set in the world of his own childhood, and told the story of a megachurch pastor who, after seeing a non-Christian die saving his sister from a fire, questions the existence of Hell. Talking to his parishioners, he borrows a bit from the philology classes that Hnath went to as a child, pointing out that the Hebrew word gehenna, often translated as “Hell,” originally meant a specific valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The pastor first divined these revelations while talking to God on the toilet. Over time, his doubts cost him his congregation. The dialogue is austere, but Hnath’s wit remains intact. With the lightest touches, he turns mouthpieces into people—a small miracle, given that the actors speak directly into microphones, rather than to one another, as if testifying. Hnath told me that, despite the changes in his life, he still “had faith,” and this seems evident in the way he takes the self-parodying bombast of megachurch preaching and finds its poetry.
Pastor: where does the Bible tell us that Hell is waiting for us?
Associate: Uh, seriously?
Associate: . . .
Pastor: . . .
Associate: in the Bible
Associate: says, “the wages of sin is death.”
Pastor: “Death” is not “Hell”
Associate: means eternal death.
Pastor: says who? says you?
Associate: no, the Word of God
Pastor: show me
Associate: when read in context
Pastor: what context are you referring to?
Associate: Luke 16:28
Isherwood called the play “terrific,” and the Guardian said, “Whether or not you believe in God, you should believe in Lucas Hnath.”
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” was a commission for the South Coast Repertory theatre, in Costa Mesa, California, in 2014. Ibsen’s play was a good subject for Hnath—cultural and theatrical critics had argued about the meaning of Nora’s exit for almost a hundred and fifty years. On his laptop, Hnath typed out Ibsen’s entire play. Then he asked himself, “What’s left unsaid?” He told me, “The first thing I wrote was Torvald unloading on Nora. And I wanted to hear her response to that.” A month after Hnath finished a draft, his agent received an e-mail from Rudin. Hnath remembers the message: “Read it. Love it. Want it.”
Rudin was eager to stage the play on Broadway, which made Hnath anxious, given that he had conceived it as an intimate chamber piece. “I was worried it would get lost with those big Broadway prosceniums,” he remembers. “But they said they would build the stage out, and they did.” Rudin was confident that Hnath’s aesthetic could work on Broadway, and, though he admired his clever staging techniques, he did not feel that they were necessary for the work to succeed. Hnath’s dialogue, with its point-blank debating, had, as Rudin says, its “own magic.” Hnath accepted Rudin’s proposal, which required, as Hnath puts it, a “tricky” entente with South Coast. Changes made in New York were sent back to Costa Mesa, to a different director and a separate cast. “A Doll’s House, Part 2” began previews on Broadway in March, 2017, but the play technically premièred in California two weeks before it officially opened in New York.
Laurie Metcalf remembers when Rudin sent her the play. “The title made me burst out laughing,” she recalls. She told herself, “I’m going to crack this open, and it’s either going to be the worst thing I ever read or the best.” Hnath remembers that he wanted to “think about different ways to get from A to B, and from B to C,” and gathered with the cast and the New York director, Sam Gold, for two weeklong workshops. “I had the script in front of me,” Hnath recalls. “And I’m marking with pink Post-its everything I feel is not quite right.” Metcalf, who was surprised by Hnath’s tear-down approach, calls him “the most open to collaboration of any writer I have ever met.”
“A Doll’s House, Part 2” begins with Nora knocking on the same door that she had walked out of fifteen years earlier. Torvald is frozen in time, whereas the children have grown up and the family maid has grown old. Hnath applied to this scenario his skill at airing different perspectives: Was Nora’s act selfish or brave? Her daughter eviscerates her for her narcissism. Was Torvald a victim or a victimizer? Every possible permutation is explored by the participants. The play is like a whodunnit in which the marriage is the murder victim.
For all the accusations hurled, the language is beautifully neutral. Hnath quoted to me a line that he particularly liked, said sharply by Anne Marie, the maid, played on Broadway by Jayne Houdyshell. Nora asks her why, if Torvald is so lonely, he doesn’t just get a dog. Anne Marie responds, “Dogs die, dogs die, they get sick, their bodies break.”
The play amazed without being shocking. It seemed worthy of Ibsen without being imitative. It had an honorably creaky nineteenth-century plot, complete with unsigned legal papers and a vengeful judge, yet the dialogue was arrestingly contemporary. The characters wore period dress but ended disputes by hurling “Fuck you” at one another. The mixture of period fidelity and anachronism signalled to the audience that they were excavating Ibsen’s artifact together. I asked Hnath who, in the end, his play was meant to favor. He answered, carefully, “Nora is the person in the play who makes the most sense to me.”
Theatregoers often responded as if they were watching a gladiatorial battle. “You could hear the crowd ooh and ah and gasp and groan,” Hnath says. The critics fell in line with praise, and the show received eight Tony Award nominations. (Metcalf won.) According to American Theatre, Hnath was the country’s most produced playwright in 2018-19 season, with “A Doll’s House, Part 2” the most produced play.
In November, I sat in on part of a five-day workshop that Hnath held with the cast of “The Thin Place,” at a rehearsal space in NoHo. By that point, the story had gone from an anecdote to a pile of notes to disconnected scenes to a preliminary script. This is more or less how Hnath develops all his plays. The original anecdote came from his frequent directorial collaborator Les Waters, who had mentioned to Hnath that family members of his in rural England believed that there were places where people could come into close contact with otherworldly realms and sometimes communicate with the dead. His people called this zone the Thin Place. Waters’s offhand comment fascinated Hnath, who had once written a play about séances.
At the time, Hnath was working on half a dozen projects. He was particularly excited about “The Thin Place,” he said, because, after “spending a lot of time writing plays with complicated dialectical arrangements of argument,” he had begun to miss “the mystical thing.” He had decided that the play would focus on the relationship between Linda, a cynical psychic, and Hilda, a far more talented young adept. As in “Isaac’s Eye,” the story would be a power struggle between a mentor and a gifted young person. But Hnath seemed more confident in his understanding of the women’s relationship than he did about the question at the center of the play: what kind of bond did spiritualists and their clients form? The suspension of disbelief, Hnath felt, was central not just to this play but also to the very relationship of a play to its audience.
Earlier, Hnath had asked four actors to work with him on the play at New Dramatists, a theatrical workshop, in a former church in Hell’s Kitchen, where since 2011 he had been a resident playwright. He had asked them about their experiences with psychics. He suggested that one actor, Emily Cass McDonnell, pull a tissue out of her mouth against a background of red light, as if it were ectoplasm. The actors practiced psychic readings on some interns. At night, Hnath wrote pages of dialogue.
The workshop that I attended was the third in this iterative process. Hnath had sent me the latest script beforehand, and to my eye it looked nearly finished. I told him that I loved it when Hilda, the younger psychic, describes the Thin Place to the audience: “Like it’s sort of like if you were to imagine an octopus in an aquarium pressed up against glass, . . . except that there’s no glass and no octopus.” He told me that the line came from Waters, who had said this to a therapist.
As Hnath saw it, the play was less about the toxic relationship between Hilda and Linda than it was about manipulating an audience. Viewers weren’t just watching a drama; they were in a drama. He asked the actor playing Linda, Robin Bartlett, to read a passage in which she explains to her young follower how she chooses a mark from an audience. “If I pay any attention at all, I see a head move,” Bartlett said. “Like fishing, I know I’ve got one. And so I gently reel it in.” Turning to the imaginary audience, she continued, “I might say, ‘Pam has passed on, hasn’t she?’ If they say yes, I’ll say, ‘Yes, Pam has passed on, and she’s telling me the money’s in the attic.’ ” She concluded, “I just have to say one thing that’s accurate about Pam or Peter, just the one thing, then I have a connection.”
Hnath observed that there was a Mad Libs quality to what psychics did, and demonstrated the point: “ ‘There’s a staircase . . . leading down into a basement . . . and . . . it’s damp.’ Right?”
McDonnell recalled the interns for whom she had done psychic readings at the earlier workshop: “I was, like, ‘You’re not from here, and you’re not sure if you should be living in the city,’ and just tears ! I was, like, Of course! Because she was a twenty-six-year-old who had just come to New York.”
The workshop group came to the consensus that duping someone was an intricate matter. The relationship depended on both the vulnerability of the victim and the acuity of the psychic. Hnath suggested that Bartlett look at some “cheesy dream-interpretation books” to help her with her part. He went on, “The whole purpose of this piece is to kind of see if I can get the audience to put themselves in the position of seeing if the things Linda’s saying have any relationship to them.” He added, “I want to show the audience how to manipulate a person in such a way that I’m almost tempting them—like, ‘You can do this in your life.’ ”
“The Thin Place” opened on March 7th. A long sequence, played out under the red light, underscored for the audience that they were part of the story, and it had been a big success. “We got shrieks and screams from the audience,” Hnath wrote me, after one preview. “I watched from the stage manager’s booth and saw people in the audience grabbing each other and hiding their eyes with their sweaters. It seemed to do exactly the thing I wanted.”
The next day, he flew to New York for a rehearsal, on Forty-second Street, of “Hillary and Clinton.” “Someday, I’ll sleep,” he wrote me. In December, 2018, when Scott Rudin had suggested taking the play to Broadway, Hnath had worried that the work’s time had passed. “I was sort of keeping it in a drawer,” he told me. But Rudin had assured him “that it was a way to do a play about 2016 and where we are now by not doing a play about 2016 and where we are now.” Hnath was also tempted to revisit the script, in part, he says, because he “could hear all the things I couldn’t do ten years ago as a writer.” He decided to “open up a new document and write the play again, from scratch.”
The current political moment led him to frame the story differently. “I let the play get angrier faster,” Hnath says, of the new version. “I don’t feel we have time for whimsy. There’s some serious stuff to discuss.”
After he completed a new draft, it was passed on to the director, Joe Mantello, and Hnath returned to “The Thin Place.” This gave Mantello several weeks alone with the work. “You saw what I’m like in workshop,” Hnath told me. “I sort of drive the room a bit.”
“Hillary and Clinton” began from an observation that Hnath had made while watching the 2008 Iowa caucuses on C-span. The camera recorded men and women explaining to other Democratic Party members their preference for one candidate or another. The deliberations took place in an actual house. Once members had made their decision, they walked into a room designated for their candidate. Hnath was struck by how little the voters knew about policy differences and by how much they relied on their impressions of candidates. It captured an idea he’d pursued in his early celebrity plays—that we think we know people just because we know about them. A few days later, he watched Hillary well up with emotion in response to a question from a voter about how she held herself together so well.
The two moments coalesced in Hnath’s mind as the basis for a play. Both the early and the current version of it emphasize how image, not substance, determines the winners and the losers in politics. Bill Clinton revels in this. Hillary Clinton mistrusts it. Obama, played in the Broadway production by Peter Francis James, seems to effortlessly glide above it. Hnath, as with his earlier plays, wanted to underscore that he wasn’t re-creating celebrities onstage. He was after “stereoscopic theatricality”—seeing people you thought you knew, only to realize that you didn’t know them at all.
I joined Hnath for a rehearsal on February 12th. He was a newcomer to the set himself. The crew had mocked up a stage that I assumed was a bare-bones stand-in but that later appeared, essentially unchanged, at the Golden: a sterile hotel room with a mini fridge in a corner, a chair on casters, and two doors. “The set wants to feel incomplete—like a rehearsal set,” Hnath notes in the script. It’s the depressing nowhere of a campaign. Lithgow sat in the chair, his face upraised as benignly as a child’s drawing of the moon. Metcalf paced, in a red cable-knit sweater, her face tight. An empty pizza box lay on the floor—a symbol of Bill’s unquenchable appetites.
Hnath sat behind a folding table, alongside Sarah Lunnie and Joe Mantello. In an early rehearsal such as this, he’d told me, his goal was “to pretend I’m a dead playwright.” Hnath has a prestidigitator’s hands, with pronounced knuckles and long, tapering fingers. At the workshop for “The Thin Place,” his hands had almost been another cast member, waving to emphasize points or pulling out scraps of dialogue from piles. Now his body was motionless. Occasionally, he whispered with Mantello.
Lithgow and Metcalf were working through a late moment in the play. I followed along with the rewritten script, and could see that Hnath had been making more small alterations, in order to make the dialogue more rhythmic. Mantello, Metcalf told me, “likes to say that Lucas’s plays are like a piece of music.” The actors had a fast exchange:
Lithgow: Between us who will die first?
Metcalf (flatly): You
Lithgow: When I die what will you do?
Metcalf: I will miss you. I will miss you terribly. I will miss you like a part of me has died and I will . . . I will go on to do the things I do I guess. Life will go on. I will also miss you terribly.
Lithgow then spoke slowly: “I’m old. When I pee, I pee. After I pee, I’ll still dribble. For minutes I’ll dribble. I’ll get a wet spot in my underwear. Parts of my teeth are rotten and my brain—it’s slower. My memory fails. And my timing—it’s off. But I get people. In here”—he touched his soft stomach—“I get people. It’s just somewhere between here”—he gestured to his head—“and me speaking out loud, something happens, and it’s off. In a really subtle but deadly way, it’s off.”
Metcalf took Lithgow’s hand and said words that the real Hillary could never say: “The universe is infinite. That means that there are an infinite number of planet Earths exactly like ours and there are also an infinite number of planet Earths that are nothing like ours.”
This passage was followed with Gertrude Stein-inspired repetitions, Hnath’s vernacular poetry: “There are universes where you’re President. There are universes where I’m the President. There are universes where I’m President and you’re not. There are universes where none of us are President and where everyone else is President except for us.”
Metcalf circled back to the emotions that Hillary was always burying: “If the universe is infinite, all possibilities exist and I’m starting to realize. . . . I’m starting to realize that I live in one of the universes where I don’t win and this is hard. It’s hard to think that you got it and I can’t.”
Lithgow: “You don’t know what universe you’ve lived in until after you’ve left it.”
Metcalf: “I’m fighting to win, Bill. I’m fighting to win and I know I can win.”
Lithgow: “I know you can win.”
“But I can’t win.” Metcalf landed the line quietly, and too quickly to be sentimental.
I saw Hnath a month later, at New Dramatists, where he’d just finished his term as a resident playwright. He was sitting in the library, in a brown leather chair, under a poster for “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” He had written so tirelessly in the chair that the organization had named the corner in his honor. Hnath looked pale. I could see gray in his hair. He told me that he had a thousand unanswered e-mails, adding, “Joe looked at my phone and said, ‘That’s my nightmare.’ ” He had hoped to become a playwright, he observed, but had “never intended to be a Broadway playwright—that’s very odd to me.”
We discussed the first preview. I told him that I’d loved Lithgow’s delivery of the line about dribbling urine. In the theatre, the blank wall that he’d been facing in rehearsal had been replaced by a backdrop of stars, making the effect deeper. He told me that he had loved the line, too—but cut it anyway. Laughing, he explained that, during the first preview, the line had got a laugh at the wrong time. Bill, as in real life, was butting in with bathos when the moment belonged to Hillary. Her new lines were: “One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred years from now your name will be the name people know as they know the stars above. But what if it was the other way around? What if instead of me supporting you it was you supporting me? Did we ever consider that possibility?”
He had tried the lines out on Pirnot at home, and she had gasped. “Yep, that’s better,” he said to himself. At that moment in the play, Hnath explained to me, “I want the sound of the thinking to be louder than the sound of the feeling.” The stars had to shine for Hillary, not for Bill.
I asked Hnath why he found feelings so untrustworthy. He said, “The idea that if you just exhibit this one kind of emotion that we find somehow sympathetic then we’ll like you better—it seems absurd and troubling to me.” He mentioned that his mother was the same way. Dana, to whom he remains close, had been the unseen presence in all our conversations. “I’m living the dream that she had,” he told me. “In so many ways, my mother is my muse. I kind of wrote Hillary’s voice in my mother’s voice—or a version of it. Funnily enough, Laurie would probably be somebody that would play my mother. Nora’s voice is another version of my mother’s voice. I always feel like I’m in some way channelling her when I write.”
In fact, someone was about to play his mother onstage. Deirdre O’Connell was getting ready to star in another new play of Hnath’s, “Dana H.” It was set to open at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, in Los Angeles, in May. The play was crucial to Hnath, and we had talked about it for almost two years. “The Thin Place,” with its motifs of magic and of maternal disappearance, felt like something that Hnath had to write in order to be able to complete “Dana H.”—what he calls “the mother play.” He wouldn’t show me the script, because he was still figuring out “what it wanted to be,” but he gave me some background. His mother had been asking him to write a play about her for a long time, he explained, and in 2016 he’d finally found a way to do so.
The story that she wanted told was a horror story. After Hnath had left for N.Y.U., in 1997, she’d become a hospital chaplain, and sometimes worked on a psychiatric ward. She’d got to know a patient, a gang member and former prisoner who told her that he wanted to turn his life around and maybe even become a minister. Feeling hopeful, she’d taken him home for Christmas. Lucas had been there, for winter break, and disliked the man on sight. He recalls, “But I thought, Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe I’m being unfair. He was very charming. Very jovial.”
Hnath returned to New York. Talking to his mother on the phone, he could tell that something was wrong, but she was evasive. Only when he returned to Florida, for spring break, did she tell him the story. The gang member, she said, had kidnapped her for several months, dragging her from motel room to motel room in Florida. “She tried to go to the cops,” Hnath said. “The cops wouldn’t do anything.” A construction worker finally rescued her. (She is unsure of the gang member’s whereabouts today.)
His mother cried when they talked about it. Hnath, feeling that it was important for his mother to tell the story to someone who didn’t already know it, asked the artistic director of the Civilians, a New York theatrical troupe that was interested in staging the show, to interview her in his stead. Afterward, Hnath shaped the transcripts into a monologue. The material still felt too hot, he said: “I realized there’s no way an actor can do this. The story is so unbelievable, and even as my mother’s telling the story she’s questioning it, because, you know, that’s not uncommon for victims of trauma.” Hnath eventually devised a solution: O’Connell could lip-synch to a recording of his mother’s voice.
“I’m somebody who is always trying to complicate received notions,” Hnath said, but in this case the work had been done for him. “My mother will be describing things you might be horrified by, and she’ll at points have a very flat affect, or she might even be laughing her way through something that’s, like, Oh, my God!” He invoked a moment, in “Hillary and Clinton,” when Hillary fends off Bill’s insistence that she adopt his theatrical style of campaigning: “My feelings don’t sound like what people think they should sound like.” And then he thought of another line in that play, when Bill accuses Hillary of lacking his gift for charming people, and she responds, “It’s because I’m actually listening.” Hnath then made me a rare promise: that line, he said, would still be there when the show opened. ♦