By: David Sheward
February 11, 2024: Mary Todd Lincoln is an odd choice as the main character of a raucous, drag-centered satire. Most campy stage spoofs written by and starring either Charles Busch or Charles Ludlum have usually centered on movie heroines played by the likes of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis in spectacularly soapy melodramas, or they are historical epics featuring over-the-top royalty in divinely diva-ish gowns. Mrs. Lincoln’s story is a truly tragic one and does not afford much opportunity for sartorial fabulousness. But that didn’t stop YouTube sensation-playwright-drag performer Cole Escola from transforming one of our nation’s saddest figures into a bawdy, naughty vamp in a riotous travesty of American history and morality, Oh, Mary! at the Lucille Lortel.
Escola has written and stars in this short, extremely funny parody, running less than 90 minutes and packed with more goofiness per second than most Broadway shows. They take a grain of truth and make it grow into acres of hilarity. The First Lady during the Civil War years was restless and discontent, the subject of manic depression and chronic shopping obsessions. Lincoln was concerned for his wife’s sanity after one of their children died in the White House and told her if she did not emerge from her dark moods, he might have to commit her to a mental institution.
Escola’s Mary is an alcoholic, foul-tempered, grown-up spoiled brat yearning to return to her past glories as a cabaret star (they were glories only in her own mind.) There is scholarship suggesting Mary’s husband harbored same-sex attractions. Escola takes this tidbit and runs with it. A closeted Abe (played with a desperate zaniness by Conrad Ricamora) attempts to distract his out-of-control spouse so he can get on with the business of waging the war. (When told the conflict is against the South, a clueless Mary replies, “The South of what?”) Abe is also fighting off urges to make whoopie with his young assistant Simon (Tony Macht, a subtle straight man, if you’ll pardon the pun). which leads to further comic mayhem. Abe enlists a proper chaperone (Bianca Leigh, delightfully prudish) and an acting teacher (James Scully, dashing and virile) in his efforts to stop her crazed impulses.
The press agent for the show have asked critics not to reveal any more of Escola’s story twists. But it would not reveal too much to say that all the plot threads lead up to Mary’s cabaret act in which Escola brilliantly mocks the show-biz, triumph-over-adversity cliches of the genre (with Macht at the piano). The program credits Holly Pierson as costume designer and Astor Yang as responsible for Escola’s gowns. Both create dazzlingly funny frocks. The design team dots provided detailed, period sets including a plausible Oval Office and a grubby tavern.
In their performance and writing, Escola skillfully spoofs 19th and 20th century acting mannerisms and puritanical attitudes towards sex. They are an impulse-driven demon, spewing invective and toppling whatever sacred cows stand in the way of Mary’s quest for the spotlight. Sam Pinkleton’s stages the brief work at a breakneck, farcical pace, exactly right for Oh, Mary!, a madcap, lightweight burlesque sure to send you in to paroxysms of mindless laughs.
Oh, Mary! ****
Feb. 8—May 5, 2024
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher St., NYC. Running time: 70 mins. with no intermission. ovationtix.com.
Photography: Emilio Madrid