Oh, Mary!‘s Cole Escola and Sam Pinkleton Have a Serious Conversation About a “Stupid” Play

However, this runaway hit comedy is anything but dumb.

The word “stupid” comes up a lot in interviews and conversations when writer and performer Cole Escola and director Sam Pinkleton discuss Oh, Mary! — Escola’s new comedy that became an unexpected runaway off-Broadway hit this spring and is now transferring to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway. Escola used the word in their acceptance speech for two of this year’s Outer Critics Circle Awards; Pinkleton also described it as such at the show’s recent press launch at the Players NYC.

While they’re aware that self-deprecation is part of the game, they both acknowledge that Oh, Mary! — a play that imagines Mary Todd Lincoln (Escola) as a foul-mouthed Lucy Ricardo, desperate to get out from under her more famous husband’s thumb — is actually constructed like a Swiss watch. Both Escola and Pinkleton agree that it takes a lot of serious work (not to mention love and devotion) for the play to be received in such a stupidly successful manner, and they’re not taking it for granted.

Cole Escola and Sam Pinkleton at the Players NYC on Gramercy Park South
(© David Gordon)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cole, how are you holding up?
Cole Escola: Um, I don’t know yet. Ask me in a year how I held up. But so far so good. I’m lucky that I care about the show, so it’s pretty easy to make myself do all the stuff that I have to do.

And Sam, how are you holding up?
Sam Pinkleton: I’m good. This is my favorite part. We’re facing mystery head on in this really thrilling way. Not to be cheesy, but every step of this process has been defined by incredibly kind people who are very good at their jobs. I like making theater because you get to work with people who are smarter than you and who are good at different things than you. It’s been like that from minute one on this. Not just the cast, but all of our designers and our stage manager. We’re not just taking the thing out of the freezer and putting it back in the microwave; we’re saying “What do we love about it? What are the guts of it? And how do we stay true to that at this new scale with this new opportunity.” I mean, I’m exhausted…

Cole: But everyone is, for real. And everyone that’s working on it signed onto it because they loved the idea and liked the script. No one’s like “Another fucking gig,” you know? They’re in it. And it was going to be a short run off-Broadway for peanuts. There’s a level of love and care from everybody, like Dots and Cha See, the lighting designer, and Holly, the wardrobe designer.

It must be really rewarding for you to experience all of this love and care, as the brainchild behind it all.
Cole: It’s super rewarding. I’m used to creating work in a vacuum, and then producing it in a vacuum, and having it received in a vacuum. It feels really, really nice to have other super creative people not just understand my idea, but have it inspire them to have ideas that I didn’t even think about, set-wise, directing-wise, and acting-wise.

Cole Escola in Oh, Mary! — credit Emilio Madrid
Cole Escola as Mary Todd Lincoln in Oh, Mary! at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
(© Emilio Madrid)

One of the things that really charmed me about the production at the Lortel was how low rent it all seemed. Like, if they slammed the door to hard, the set would wobble and you’d worry that it was going to fall down. Are you keeping that same aesthetic for Broadway?
Sam: It’s part of the show! It’s a very loving part of the show. The most important word is loving. When you fall in love with theater…You’re doing The Crucible at your high school, and you’re like, “This is amazing!” and then you look back and you realize it’s two flats, but you love it so much. No one is like, “This is crappy.” That aesthetic absolutely remains, and I hope on this scale, it still feels really loving.

I know we on the outside were all hoping for the Booth Theatre, for the joke of it.
: Patti and Mia Farrow got to it first. Always two steps ahead of us.

Sam: But the Lyceum is truly my favorite theater. I always say it’s like a child drew a picture of a theater. It’s such a theater. It’s like The Muppet Show. And our designers, Dots and Cha See and Holly, are hanging onto that community theater thing while totally embracing what’s so special about the Lyceum.

Are you hanging your fake production photos up?
Cole: The Shuberts have graciously allowed us to deface their entire space.

How did you two come to work together?
Cole: We worked together on a musical called The Material World at Dixon Place in 2012, and then we didn’t talk for 11 years. After I wrote this play, I had some meetings with people, but it was immediately clear that it was Sam. He got all the Ann Miller references, he got all the regional theater references.

Sam, did you know from your first read of the script that it was going to play the way it plays?
Sam: I didn’t know that it was going to do this thing that it’s done. But I do think that part of what is so special about the play, and what sets the play apart from a lot of wacky comedies, is that it’s really well-structured. It has incredibly high stakes, full of people who care very deeply about what they’re doing. It’s full of surprises, but the surprises aren’t gags. They come from character and story. So when I read the play, of course I laughed my ass off, but I was also like, “Oh, this is dead serious.”

Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola in Oh, Mary! — credit Emilio Madrid
Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola in Oh, Mary!
(© Emilio Madrid)

Cole, what is it like for you as an actor to deal with you as a writer? Do you feel you have to adhere to every comma or do you let yourself go nuts?
Cole: Everyone else’s commas have to be adhered to. [laughs] I try not to do that because it’s not fair to the other actors if I get to fuck around and they don’t. Without a director there, I’m pretty hesitant to try new things without having eyes to be like, “That works.” We have changed a line here and there for the Broadway transfer just because we had time and the opportunity to try new stuff. But I’m lucky that I live with the playwright, so I can make sure it matches their intention.

How did you pick the songs in the Madcap Medley at the end?
Cole: I don’t know. I just went by my intuition.

Sam: That sequence has been through a lot of different iterations.

Cole: There were maybe like five more songs.

Sam: We cut two songs in previews downtown like we’re doing a musical. The first time we went through it, I had tears streaming down my face because some of the choices that Cole made were, despite being ridiculous, undeniably truthful for this woman’s story. Obviously we want the show to end with a bang and for people to be delighted, but there’s a real gut truth to how these songs answer this character. For me, the greatest musical theater in the world is the early days of Kiki and Herb, where Kiki would sing “Running Up That Hill” and it would be completely absurd, but you were also devastated.

Cole: Like you heard it for the first time. You’re like, “I’ve never thought about what that song actually means.”

Sam: Not to be Mr. Boring Talker, but truth has always been the driver.

You’ve probably been asked this a lot, but what did Sally Field and Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner tell you when they saw it?
Cole: They were all so warm. It was gracious of them to stay afterwards. They went very, very early. Apparently, there was a text thread, of Tony being like, “Do you want to come see this?” And then Sally saying, “Should we invite Steven?” But yeah, they were just so warm and enthusiastic, and I was really relieved. They made that movie about Lincoln, so they care deeply about those people. And part of me — I know they’re not stupid, so they wouldn’t — did think that they’d be slightly offended that we’re making jokes about Mary not caring about her children. Turns out they have senses of humor!

Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh in Oh, Mary! — credit Emilio Madrid (1)
Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh in Oh, Mary!
(© Emilio Madrid)

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Oh, Mary!

Final performance: September 15, 2024