Interview: Cole Escola’s Zany Portrait of the Lincolns in Oh, Mary!

The hilarious melodrama currently runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Cole Escola and James Scully star in Escola’s Oh, Mary!, directed by Sam Pinkleton, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Emilio Madrid)

Cole Escola may not be a household name — well, they are in some households — but they (Escola identifies as non-binary, hence the pronouns) have been working constantly for the past 15 years in cabaret, theater, and especially on television in such series as Jeffery and Cole’s Casserole, Difficult People, Mozart in the Jungle, and Search Party.

However, Escola has reached a new level of fame recently as the writer and star of the critically acclaimed comedy Oh, Mary! at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in which they leave audiences howling with their outrageous portrayal of former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

TheaterMania recently spoke to Escola about their own reaction to the play’s success, why they chose to write about Mary Todd Lincoln, how they approached the casting of their fellow actors (including Conrad Ricamora as a not-so-secretly gay Abe Lincoln), and what they foresee as the future of this production.

Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh star in Escola’s Oh, Mary!, directed by Sam Pinkleton, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Emilio Madrid)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Were you prepared for the positive audience and critical reaction?

Nope, I was completely surprised. I don’t know what I expected though. I hoped people would like it, and I’ve done other shows that were well received, but I’ve never gotten the reaction that I have now. Plus, I’ve never been hounded like this for tickets by friends, family members, even strangers. It’s exhausting!

What made you want to write a play about Mary Todd Lincoln?

I just thought that me as Mary Todd Lincoln was a very funny idea. Mostly, it was just the thought of me in that hoop-skirt costume and the stupid curls bouncing on her head. I also immediately envisioned the tone of the play. I even sent myself an email in 2009 that said: “What if Abe Lincoln’s assassination wasn’t such a bad idea?” But I was too scared to write the play until last year. I think I was afraid it wouldn’t meet my own expectations!

Did you know a lot about Mary when the idea first came to you?

No, and I’ve wanted to keep it that way, so I had the same third-grade knowledge about her that the audience did. I didn’t look much into her real life when I started writing the play. It also helped that I hadn’t seen any of the other plays written about her. I did see the movie Lincoln, but I didn’t copy Sally Field. In fact, I only started researching a little more about her after rehearsals started, mostly because people would send me things about her — like this one telegram that was sent to Abe that said, “Come collect your wife, she’s making a fool of herself.” And I thought, “Oh, so I got her a little bit right.”

Are you doing any research now?

No, but I have to admit, I really want to see this old miniseries, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, in which Mary Tyler Moore plays Mary Todd. But I am also afraid if I see it, I will get ideas that I want to add to the play.

Do you sympathize with Mary Todd Lincoln?

Yes, because none of those women in those days, especially first ladies, were allowed to do anything important. They were told, “Here’s what you can do, and you have to do it quietly, and if not, you’ll end up in an asylum.” Which did happen to her. I think even now, there are still all these rules that apply to the role of first lady. Ultimately, you’re still the President’s wife, you get to cut the ribbon, and you can only do the least offensive work possible, whether it’s your profession or for charity.

Conrad Ricamora plays Abraham Lincoln, and Cole Escola plays Mary Todd Lincoln in Escola’s Oh, Mary!, directed by Sam Pinkleton, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Emilio Madrid)


There’s been so much talk of an extension or transfer. Is it happening? And do you think you’d enjoy acting this role in a really long run?

I don’t know yet what’s next because no one’s told me. To me, it doesn’t matter where we do this show as long as I can keep doing it. I know people mention Broadway, but I’m not holding my breath. I think I would love to try it in London. The truth is I usually find acting far more nerve-racking than writing, but not with this play. In fact, I don’t think I could ever be bored playing melodrama. I’ve also done enough theater to know opportunities like this are rare and that someday I will find myself back in the corner of my writing room. So, yes, I’m enjoying doing this as long as it lasts.

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Oh, Mary!

Final performance: May 12, 2024