Mary Todd Lincoln, Thwarted Cabaret Star? That’s Cole Escola’s Take.


It’s hard to pin down the moment in “Oh, Mary!,” a comedy about Mary Todd Lincoln, that will send Lincoln scholars and purists into apoplexy. It could be when the first lady disastrously auditions for a role in “Our American Cousin,” the play at which John Wilkes Booth would later shoot her husband on April 14, 1865. Or when the deeply closeted Lincoln is orally pleasured at his desk. Maybe the puke-drinking scene?

There have been walkouts.

“I’ve seen people at the box office who seem to think this is really a play about Abraham Lincoln, and I feel a little bad, but it’s also funny,” Cole Escola, the show’s writer and star, said in a recent phone interview.

“Oh, Mary!”: It sounds like a catty dramedy set at a pre-Stonewall gay bar, or maybe an alt-cabaret tribute to Jackée Harry and her chirpy signature greeting on the 1980s sitcom “227.”

“Oh, Mary!,” of course, is not about gay bars or Jackée Harry, but it is just as camp: The former first lady is presented as a bubbleheaded alcoholic, and she is the latest put-upon woman to enchant Escola. (The show opens on Thursday and continues through March 24 at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theater.)

Far from being a student of the Lincolns, Escola, who is nonbinary, said they only started reading “a few cursory” things about Mary Todd Lincoln about three weeks ago.

“I wish I had done any research,” they said. “But I wanted to write the show for an audience who had the same third-grade understanding that I do.” (“I just wanted to wear the costume,” Escola deadpan confesses in an Instagram video.)

Escola’s Mary Todd isn’t the American first lady that Julie Harris received a Tony Award for playing in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,” James Prideaux’s 1972 Broadway biodrama. Nor does this portrait have the didacticism of Sally Field’s portrayal in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic, “Lincoln.” Nor is she the family-friendly belle seen in the 2022 family-friendly musical “The Lincolns of Springfield.”

As directed by Sam Pinkleton and feverishly played by Escola, Mrs. Lincoln is a snide, depressed, tantrum-prone and romance-starved first lady teeming with a sense of bitterness — a disposition rooted in her unfulfilled dreams of being a cabaret star. A beleaguered President Lincoln, played by Conrad Ricamora, calls her a “moron” — adding a crass, unstatesmanlike adjective before the word “moron.”

Escola said their decision to treat Mrs. Lincoln as a batty harridan comes from a place of self-awareness: They know that they, too, are often considered “obnoxious, grating, a nuisance.”

“Really, to be able to channel all that through a historical figure who is seen that way was fun,” they said.

Vulgar and savagely homosexual: It’s familiar material for Escola, a gadfly comedian and actor best known for their impish drag portrayals and for playing Matthew, a nelly twink shrew on the Hulu series “Difficult People.” And their play is the latest testament to the 16th president’s staying power as an irreverent figure in genre — comedy, horror, thrillers — a world that devours sacred cows like a kid scarfs down Skittles.

Rod Serling made Lincoln a character in “The Passersby,” a 1961 episode of “The Twilight Zone.” In the 1998 sitcom “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” Lincoln and a Mrs. Roper-like Mary Todd squabbled over her weight. (That UPN show was canceled after the fourth episode, partly because of protests over its slavery jokes. “Oh, Mary!” doesn’t touch slavery.)

The president chopped up bloodsuckers in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” the hit 2010 novel, and in its screen adaptation two years later. He took up a scythe against the Confederate walking dead in “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies,” also from 2012. Sketch comedy shows, including “SCTV” and “The Whitest Kids U’Know,” have favored a bro-like Lincoln.

But in “Oh, Mary!,” it’s the first lady who gets top billing. (The playbill calls the president simply “Mary’s Husband.”) She’s also a prominent supporting player in “Manhunt,” Apple TV+’s new seven-part series, based on James L. Swanson’s best-selling book, that takes a Dickensian look at the search for Booth in the days after he assassinated Lincoln. (The first two episodes drop March 15.)

Monica Beletsky, the creator of “Manhunt,” calls it “a cat-and-mouse detective thriller” that emphasizes how Lincoln (Hamish Linklater) respected the views of his wife (Lili Taylor), a departure from depictions of a difficult, unstable first lady.

“I think it’s overblown in terms of whether or not she was crazy,” Beletsky said. “I’m trying to shed light on another version of her in which she is a true American hero.”

Fans of Sirkian melodrama and the downtown drag impresario Charles Busch — to whom Escola, 37, is an heir — will recognize Escola’s Mary as a camp type: a woman of a certain temperament and age who perseveres despite unfaithful husbands, insolent children and unimaginable trials.

What Mary Todd Lincoln and, say, Mildred Pierce have in common is exactly nothing. But in a soap operatic sense they share common ground.

Even though Mary Todd was raised in a prosperous household in Kentucky, in a letter she described her childhood as “desolate.” Her mother died when she was 6 and her father quickly remarried, leaving her feeling abandoned. During her own marriage, she at least occasionally physically attacked Lincoln, and at times he turned on her. As she and the nation mourned his assassination, her mental health further deteriorated as she dealt with a life’s worth of tragedies, including the deaths of three of her four children.

Michael Burlingame, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield, said that other than treating Lincoln as a “classic henpecked husband,” at face value there’s nothing funny about Mary Todd Lincoln.

“The normal approach that most people take when they write about Mary Todd Lincoln is that she was misrepresented by historians and biographers, and that she is to be pitied,” said Burlingame, the author of “An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd.” “It seems implausible to me that she would be a figure upon which a comedy would be based.”

So would he see “Oh, Mary!”?

“Absolutely,” he said.

Mrs. Lincoln’s shortcomings, Escola said, are what make her worth rooting for.

“In order to make her look better, people gloss over those things because they think that makes her less likable or less of a hero,” they said. “It takes an idiot to be like, I think it’s cool that she pissed everybody off. By an idiot, I mean someone with my sense of humor.”

Who knows if “Oh, Mary!” will be among the first of many reclamations of Mary Todd Lincoln as werewolf, mercenary or other genre trope. Far from being off limits, Mrs. Lincoln is ripe for an “interpretive creative reimagining,” said Julie Golia, the New York Public Library’s associate director for manuscripts, archives and rare books who helped acquire its new trove of Lincolnalia.

“Think of the moment we are in now, of remarkable political upheaval, the backdrop of the pandemic and of #MeToo, questions about identity and whose stories should be prioritized,” Golia said. “What better time to revisit this fascinating historical character and flip the table and place her at the center of the story?”

Does that mean she, too, would see “Oh, Mary!”?

“Heck, yeah,” she said.





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