Photo: Emilio Madrid
By Brian Scott Lipton
If those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, those who do learn it but aren’t afraid to make fun of it can create hilarious theater. Now, on the heels of the recently closed “Gutenberg! The Musical” comes the even more uproarious “Oh, Mary!” at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. This don’t-miss farce is a complete tour de force for the non-binary writer and actor Cole Escola, who is serving up 80 of the funniest minutes you’ll see in any medium!
The Mary in this case is not Mary Martin, Mary Tyler Moore or Mary Magdalene (although I’d love to see how Escola might skewer those women) but former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who suffered from bipolar disorder and survived the death of two of her young sons, one of whom died while her husband was president. So sad!
But here, as brilliantly portrayed by Escola (flouncing around in Astor Yand’s period-perfect black gown), Mary is a merciless drunk who will swallow anything (and I mean anything) that she finds nearby; a sharp-tongued shrew who will insult or make fun of anyone in her orbit, including her exasperated husband (the extraordinary Conrad Ricamora), her patient companion Louise (a delightful Bianca Leigh) and her ultra-handsome acting teacher (the delicious James Scully); and, most importantly, moan endlessly about how Abraham won’t let her return to her one true love: the cabaret stage.
Despite our better intentions, we can’t wait for Mary’s latest barb, delivered in a voice that sometimes resembles both Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch, each of which hits its target with the expertise of an Olympic archer. Moreover, as unpleasant and brittle as Mary is, Escola somehow finds a way to make us feel just a smidge of sympathy for this deeply unhappy and sometimes delusional woman -- one who sees the White House (nicely designed by the collective dots) as a proverbial gilded cage (albeit with one place nearby to which she manages to escape).
Ironically, we have less empathy for not-so-honest Abe himself, even knowing his death is just days away. Mostly, he spends his time alternating between begging God to let him “win” the Civil War, promising to abandon his avowed homosexuality in exchange for the victory, and periodically engaging in less-than-appropriate behavior with his loyal aide Simon (an adorkable Tony Macht). Moreover, his disdain for Mary is so over-the-top he considers letting her die just because being seen as a widower might gain him some sympathy in the South.
Given that the entire enterprise’s style is reminiscent of the classic sketches of “The Carol Burnett Show,” one keeps expecting the show to wear out its welcome, even with its short runtime. Luckily, director Sam Pinkleton keeps everything and everyone in constant forward motion, with the briefest of breaks between scenes. It also helps that Escola’s script has a few brilliant plot twists (which we won’t reveal here) that make the show’s second half even funnier than the first!
Given the credits of some of the show’s producers, this show may have a far quicker journey to Broadway than “Gutenberg!” But don’t miss your shot! Just head down to the Lortel as soon as you possibly can!