September 1, 2010

"Abraham Lincoln" and Other Civil Wars

The reviews for Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party were so bad (it scored a D on the StagegGrade aggregator site) that I planned to skip it.  But then I got a special invitation to see the show.  So I went. And guess what?  I had a good time. 

The two major objections to the show seem to be: (1) it has very little to do with Abe Lincoln and sheds no light on the recent speculations about his sexual orientation; and (2) it’s not the campy romp that the title seems to promise. Instead, it deals with larger issues and is a more complicated endeavor. 

The show, which was a hit at last year's Fringe Festival, opens with a Christmas pageant at a modern-day grade school in the heartland Illinois county where Lincoln grew up. Political correctness has ruled out the traditional religious references so one of the teachers has substituted a play about the U.S. Presidents. 

I groaned inwardly as the grown-up actors mimicked little kids playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  But then, the Lincoln kid speaks up to proclaim the 16th president’s love for his former law partner and to make a plea for acceptance of all same-sex relationships.  That kick starts the plot as the teacher is fired and put on trial. 

What happens next unfolds in three separate but overlapping acts told from the viewpoints of a conservative former congressman who’s prosecuting the case; the black female defense attorney, who just happens to be the congressman’s former protégée and his current rival in the governor’s race; and a gay New York Times reporter who’s come to town to cover the trial. Their accounts are punctuated by peppy dance numbers in which the entire cast dresses up in bad Lincoln costumes and performs in a variety of styles.

But underneath the stovepipe hats, false beards and other silliness, playwright Aaron Loeb, a videogame producer who majored in dramatic writing and literature at NYU, is taking a totally serious look at the complex attitudes that people on all sides of the issue in this country hold about homosexuality.  The political skullduggery in the play gets a little confusing but none of its characters come off as entirely good or entirely evil.  And that’s impressive when you’re dealing with a hot-wire, us-vs.-them topic like this one. 

It helps when you have a cast that is adept at hitting light and heavy notes with equal finesse. All seven of the actors here are terrific but Robert Hogan as the congressman and Pippa Pearthree as the teacher deserve special shoutouts for their poignant portrayals of characters who they refuse to treat as caricatures. Chris Smith’s direction does drag in places but he gets props for his fine work with the actors and for recruiting an equally top-shelf design crew, lead by Bill English who has devised a clever set in which panels bearing Lincoln’s image transform into everything from a jury box to a pie shop.

All of which makes me wonder why the show has been so badly dissed by the critics, many of whom complained that its themes are old-hat.  Well, I think that depends on who’s wearing that hat. And I can’t help wondering—and I know I’m venturing into touchy territory here—if the griping might reflect the fact that so many of the critics are gay and are coming at the show with a heightened sensitivity to the subject that holds shows with gay themes to tougher standards, a sin that I suspect I’m equally guilty of when I write about shows that deal with race (as evidence I offer what I now think is my overly contrary review of Clybourne Park). But hey, just because those of us who live these lives have heard these stories before doesn’t mean everyone has.

Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party, which is playing at the Acorn space at Theatre Row through this Sunday, isn’t a great show.  And much of its satire is heavy-handed (the teacher is named Harmony; a Cuban character is a gratuitous hoochie mama; and, frankly, the ending makes no sense at all).  Still, it is a show that deserves a much better reception than it’s gotten.


Jane said...

I don't know why people thought it was bad -- I loved it!

Jane Landon said...

Thanks for the comment, Jane. And for the support!