If I had access to a time machine one stop I’d make would be sometime around 1960 at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village where young playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson staged daringly offbeat shows and up-and-coming actors like Bernadette Peters, Al Pacino and Bette Midler performed in some of them. Of course that kind of time travel isn’t currently available but the next best thing might be seeing Oh, Mary!, the proudly queer and unabashedly ridiculous comedy that has just been extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 5.
Oh, Mary! is the nonbinary playwright Cole Escola’s bizarro-world version of Mary Todd Lincoln’s activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination of her husband at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. It’s filled with swishing hoop skirts, swishy leading men, secret love affairs and a liquor-swilling First Lady who wants more than anything to be—of all things—a cabaret star.
Escola has said that they did almost no research before writing Oh, Mary! (click here to read more about that). Instead the show cheerfully cherry picks hearsay about the Lincolns (Mary’s reportedly high-strung personality; Abe's supposedly gay proclivities) that will lend themselves to jokes that are silly (the show’s Mary keeps asking who’s fighting in the Civil War) or raunchy (an aide-de-camp brings new meaning to the role of a president's body man).
This kind of high-camp stuff can wear out its welcome pretty fast. But Escola, wearing a wig with sausage curls and looking like Sutton Foster’s deranged kid sister, is so delightfully daffy as Mary that it’s almost impossible to resist this show’s outrageous lunacy.
The cast and design crew commit to the hijinks too and director Sam Pinkleton has made sure they're all on the same page of the playbook. The witty sets by the design team known as Dots frolic on the line between realism and parody. And the period-appropriate costumes by Holly Pierson and Astor Yang are in on the joke too.
Meanwhile the five cast members gamely tweak stock roles taken straight out of a 19th century melodrama. But no one breaks character or mugs unnecessarily (although there is plenty of appropriate mugging). Conrad Ricamora is particularly terrific as a Lincoln torn between managing the war, managing his uncivil wife and managing his uncontrollable libido.
Similarly, James Scully is pitch perfect as a tutor the president hires to keep Mary occupied and Scully not only makes for a hunky juvenile lead but delivers a Shakespeare soliloquy that would make any RSC grad proud. And Bianca Leigh and Tony Macht are just as winning in smaller roles.
Comparisons to the works of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch are inevitable but Escola brings a deadpan mischievousness to the drag damsel in distress that is utterly unique and deliciously goofy. The result is an 80-minute gigglefest. And who doesn't need a good laugh in these trying times.