The Hillary Chronicles

WATCHING THE STALE Broadway revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles that’s closing May 3rd, I thought of Hillary Clinton. Fictional Heidi Holland, the play’s protagonist, and real Hillary Clinton, have a lot in common: they’re both Illinois-born straight arrows educated at Seven Sisters colleges and Yale who were transformed by the Women’s Liberation Movement and consciousness raising of the 1960s and 70s and ultimately forced to reconcile their generational idealism with the selfishness of 1980s Yuppieism. They’re second-wave feminists whose stories bridge the span from legal manifestos (Equal rights now!) to existential yearning (Can we have it all?). They’re also both blondes in pant suits. Wasserstein finished writing the play in 1988, before Hillary’s national prominence, but it’s tempting to think she had Hillary Rodham in mind as Heidi’s muse, for—in  addition to their twinned biographies—Heidi, like Hillary, is an emotional sphinx. Unfortunately, Hillary’s inevitable campaign, launched with speechless video, earnest nods, and road-trip Chipotle, appears to be shooting from the same script.

The Heidi Chronicles skims where it should dive. Rather than deeply probing the motivations and conflicts of Heidi’s inner life, which is entirely called for given the gravity of the play’s pastiche of themes, the play is built on superficial comic observations that I remember feeling were creaky when it premiered and are now so far past the sell date that rigor mortis has set in: It’s the 1980s—shoulder pads and Chardonnay! The problem isn’t what the play portrays; it’s how it says it. The Golden Girls was sharper. The unimaginative staging wallpapers the set with cliché newsreel footage and pop singles marking each scene’s stop on the Baby Boomer timeline, a device that smacks of late-night commercials for Greatest Hits CD packages. Calling Peter Noone! In the poverty of the foreground dramatic-comedic storytelling, the background says it all. Channeling the same inverted approach, Hillary’s passive video and fast-food tableaus fall flat and illuminate the challenges of transforming someone who has been constructed as a symbol into a star. For Heidi, it’s too late; her run is curtains. Hillary, however, still has a chance.

When Hillary lost her presumptive 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination to Barack Obama, the postmortems ascribed it to a few underlying causes: the organizational complacency of front-runner status, her politically calculated vote authorizing the military invasion of Iraq, her husband’s campaign slurs in South Carolina. But in strictly electoral terms, she failed to excite and activate as many new voters as Obama. The race was hers to lose and she complied. Obama won the general election with the same magnetism, turning out huge numbers of young and first-time voters whose passions were ignited by the promise of making history, rejecting eight years of a Republican administration bent on restaging the pre-Heidi past.

Like Heidi, Hillary’s persona is so identified with the seminal events of her generation that the rapport of her peers gives her a loyal audience who believe she speaks for them, even if she doesn’t speak. Their shared fan base packs the house—for a while. Women in their sixties and seventies took many of the seats inside the Music Box Theater, and The Hillary Chronicles’ advance sale has so scared off all potential Democratic primary rivals except for Bernie Sanders that, barring a tumble off the stage in the second act, Clinton will be coronated with the nomination in 2016. Winning the general election, however, will require drawing in a bigger audience. There just aren’t enough Heidi Hollands in the electorate to get to the White House, let alone the Tonys. Hillary will have to animate non-Heidis to win, and to prove, finally, that behind her compelling biography and stellar résumé, there exists not only a supporting player but also a leading lady. But with its sleepy overture, her show is not off to a rousing start.

Compensating for Hillary’s wooden line readings, her campaign has her cast as an empathetic listener to the concerns of “everyday people.” I am woman, hear me snore. Foolishly, it silences the star and shunts her to the chorus, projecting the trials of her times with the same shopworn reflections as the grainy oil-crisis newsreel footage that shadows The Heidi Chronicles. By featuring the blandness of groupthink, Hillary is leaving her core personal virtue locked in the dressing room: she is a heroine. She’s endured and triumphed over a lifetime of barriers, discrimination, and sexist hate; the shame of a publicly unfaithful husband; and is still being hit by the sharper arrows shot at women in power. You may not want to have these troubles in your own life, but witnessing them in hers makes her sympathetic; her deflections of the pain make her inspirational; the will that has enabled her to survive and not surrender to the temptation of a nice house in Chappaqua—bolder than Heidi’s lip-service anti-Yuppieism—makes her something more luminous than a stock character, it makes her the brightest light on a stage of dim bulbs. She’s the only one here and now who has the might to shatter the Presidential glass ceiling. Hillary is historic and—more importantly—she is relevant because she is a woman striving in a man’s world, in the same way that Barack Obama’s race influenced so much of who he is. Cutting out that part of herself and leaving it in the wings will turn The Hillary Chronicles into a flop.

Wendy Wasserstein set out to write The Heidi Chronicles as a commercial hit. That’s a heavy harness for any artist, and it shows in the play’s cringe-inducing recitations of crowd-pandering croakers; they are the weak echoes of a timid voice. The Heidi Chronicles, despite its awards, fumbled its chance at making history by playing it safe, dulling the edges of a heroine until she became as soft and domesticated as a Jell-O mold, and as disposable. For Hillary, setting out to win the election in the same fashion would also blow her date with destiny. If, one late night in 2017, there is Hillary Clinton on television standing aside Peter Noone saying “Yes, Peter, I remember those days well” while Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” boogies in the background, she’ll be forced to think back to The Hillary Chronicles and wonder what might have been.

Then, again, there’s always Broadway.

curtains

Jon Reiner

About Jon Reiner

Jon Reiner is the James Beard Award-winning author of the memoir The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Atlantic, and The New York Times and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. He is also the director of the documentary film Tree Man. He lives in New York City.
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