April 1, 2020

“Hillary and Monica:” An unlikely meeting

The laughs are fast and furious throughout the new play “Hillary and Monica,” with lines like, “How do you dial 9-1-1?”  The show written by Victor Bardack and Edward Michael Bell is now running at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. 

You might expect this story to depict an explosive meeting between the former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, infamous for her “inappropriate relationship” with Bill Clinton, as the then-president called it, and his wife, Hillary, who now runs for the same office. Hanging over this meeting would be the topic of the most famous act of oral copulation in United States history. However, the play is actually about the creative process of two writing partners as they try to put a script together about just such a fictitious encounter.

Early in the proceedings, Pete Raffelo (Rick Pasqualone) unexpectedly shows up at the Manhattan apartment of his former writing partner, Ben Rose (Barry Pearl). It seems that Pete owes his bookie and the IRS a lot of money, so after more than a year’s absence and in need of cash, he reappears to persuade Ben to work with him on a script about the two women.

In describing the two characters, director Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), who, in addition to films, has directed some 650 television episodes, said Ben is Jewish, a decidedly old soul, and a walking encyclopedia of films from the 1940s and ’50s.

“His home is basically pre-World War II, Upper West Side. Most of the furniture comes from his mother, who had the apartment before him, an apartment he’s been living in for 31 years.

“He’s a very organized person, whereas Pete, his writing partner (who is Italian), is basically a player. He fools around with women — he’s constantly in trouble with gambling, and so they’re definitely polar opposites in that sense.”

As the two begin to collaborate, Ben worries constantly that every idea Pete proposes could get them sued. So they call in Pete’s lawyer, Greg Goldfarb (Phil Morris), to give them legal advice. Zwick said that, just as the roles of Ben and Pete originally were written to be Jewish, so was the role of the attorney. But Morris, who is African-American, is one of Zwick’s old buddies, and in his head the director could hear the actor’s voice playing the part.

“I said to myself, ‘Let’s cast him African-American, and he can have the comic side, if you wish, of calling himself Greg Goldfarb, so that people will think he might be Jewish.’ That was how those three things came together. I wanted three decidedly different voices for the three characters, and I was concerned that if all three voices turned out to be Jewish men, you would never be able to distinguish them from each other.” 

Zwick himself has a strong Jewish background. His father, an immigrant, was a cantor. “My uncle was a rabbi,” he said, “and my other uncle was a Chasidic Jew — this is all on my father’s side. My mother’s side was pretty much Anglicized. My mother was born in America, and had no particular relationship to religion, but I was bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox temple.” 

He added that he returned recently from his first trip to Israel. “I finally got to go. I said, ‘I’m getting old — I’ve got to get to do these things in my life.’ I want to be able to enjoy it when I go, so Israel was the top of the list, the place that I had to go.” 

Returning to “Hillary and Monica,” the director summed up the show, in which treacherous, somewhat scandalous secrets are uncovered, as a “morality comedy,” because his characters have very dubious behavior patterns, Pete and Greg in particular. “They will cheat each other; they will gamble with each other; they will steal each other’s women. They’re not particularly moral people. Ben is essentially a moral person — and more than a little naïve. He’s so involved in his own craziness that he doesn’t see the forest for the trees.

“We’re very willing to get into somebody else’s questionable morality,” Zwick continued, “but we never quite get into our own questionable morality. Anda that’s essentially what I think is at the center of the play. And that interested me. And it was funny.”

He added that they did not start out to make this a political play, but events overtook them during the rewrite, as Hillary Clinton started running for president. “All of a sudden, the concerns that Donald Trump may very well use this whole terrible part of the history of Bill Clinton to throw it up in the face of Hillary, all of a sudden [that] becomes a possibility. So our show now is much more topical than anything that we envisioned happening. We were not looking to open up this can of worms, but boy, oh, boy, the can of worms looks like it’s opening up on us!”

 “Hillary and Monica” is at the