I cannot recall a more grotesque and slanderous onstage depiction of an American first lady than the one found in Cole Escola’s Oh, Mary!, now making its world premiere at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Both playwright and star, Escola imagines Mary Todd Lincoln as an alcoholic sociopath, a mash-up of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed, and Lucy Ricardo. Oh, how she wishes she could be in the show! But ever since she married that dour, closeted queen of a Springfield lawyer, she has been forced to put her cabaret career on hold, depriving the world of Mary’s madcap medleys (the very mention of this in a show starring Cole Escola is the equivalent of waving a pistol around during the first act of a Chekhov play). But she’s determined to climb back onstage one way or another…that is, if the paint thinner she keeps drinking doesn’t get her first. She’s a mess! She’s outrageously offensive! She’s utterly fabulous!
There is a kernel of truth in Escola’s queer historical fiction. Mary Todd Lincoln was, by most accounts, a major distraction to her husband as he attempted to steer our fragile republic through our first civil war (sequel currently in production). And she did suffer from persistent mental health problems — wouldn’t you if two of your sons had died in childhood and your husband’s brains were splattered all over you during a night at the theater? But historical accuracy ends there and was clearly never the goal in this delirious send-up of a White House drama, in which no cow is too sacred for slaughter. If you’re like me, you’ll laugh until there are tears in your eyes.
Conrad Ricamora makes a surprisingly convincing Abraham Lincoln, delivering a performance that forces us to ask: Is he an asshole because he’s sexually frustrated, or is he sexually frustrated because he’s an asshole? (Escola shows notable restraint in passing-up the low-hanging fruit of Lincoln’s intimate relationship with Speed.) We certainly worry for the welfare of his secretary, a boyish and vulnerable Tony Macht. Although he seems to be in considerably less peril than Mary’s best friend (read: babysitter) Louise, played with admirable sincerity by Bianca Leigh. And then there’s Mary’s acting coach (the handsome and mercurial James Scully). Meant to take some of the burden off Louise, we instantly suspect he’ll only exacerbate Mary’s delusions of grandeur.
And what grandeur! Escola is magnificent as Mary, a toothy grimace under a cascade of ringlets that warns all who approach: Watch out, she bites. The lines certainly have teeth as Escola wrings laughs out of every syllable, cheating out to the audience and blasting us with extravagant facial expressions, as if playing for some invisible camera in a DeMille epic. A master of an antique acting style now mostly seen on TCM, Escola instantly joins the ranks of Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam as a performer from whom you cannot look away.
Smartly, director Sam Pinkleton crafts his straightforward, almost old-fashioned staging around the star. Footlights and a heavy red curtain evoke the 19th-century theater and serve to facilitate ultra-quick set changes (scenic design by dots). Daniel Kluger has composed melodramatic piano music to underscore the transitions, with further moments of underscoring throughout the play (stealthy and effective sound design by Kluger and Drew Levy). Costume designer Holly Pierson transports us to a world of hoop skirts and waistcoats, with Escola donning extra special gowns by Astor Yang. No wig is too ridiculous, no fake beard too fake for wig designer Leah J. Loukas (and this is as it should be). It all looks like a regional production of A Civil War Christmas — but it sure doesn’t sound like it.
Escola and Pinkleton should be applauded for bringing the irreverent, slyly intelligent, irresistibly naughty spirit of the Ridiculous back to Christopher Street. When so much of the outside world is terribly depressing, I always welcome an opportunity to laugh for 80 straight (but also very gay) minutes in the theater.