Home Game Reviews Theater Review: Cole Escola’s ‘Oh, Mary!’

Theater Review: Cole Escola’s ‘Oh, Mary!’

by dev

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Photo: Emilio Madrid

There’s a classic gag where a character gets his pants pulled down to reveal his heart-patterned boxer shorts. It’s the kind of vaudevillian punch line you rarely see anymore outside of comic strips like Garfield. But midway through Oh, Mary!, as Mary Todd Lincoln climbs onto a desk in the Oval Office in a fit of passion and fury, flinging her hoop skirt up at the audience, there they are: white and red and, no matter how sophisticated you think you are, likely to rip a belly laugh out of you.

The moment is typical of the berserk approach of Cole Escola, who has made their name in alt-comedy and cabaret acts with a distinctive concoction of diva worship, queer aesthetics, and scatology but is only now making their Off Broadway debut. I first encountered Escola’s work by way of their YouTube impressions of Bernadette Peters (when her accountant asks about charitable donations, Escola’s Bernadette blithely tells him, “I gave all my earnings to Elaine Paige”). But if you’re already an Escola fan — the type is, generally, queer coastal medicated comedy snob — you’re probably also familiar with their maniacal twinks on Difficult People and Search Party or their parodies of true crime and western TV kitsch like Little House on the Prairie. Escola tends to pop up on the margins of other people’s screen projects or in smaller, low-budget work. In Oh, Mary!, however, they have constructed a star vehicle for themselves, and it’s a work of deranged beauty: a version of Mary Todd Lincoln told (as the press release teases it) “through the lens of an idiot,” played with all the verve and severity of Bette Davis on bath salts.

Expect only a glancing resemblance to historical accuracy. Elsewhere, Mary is usually depicted as a nagging mourner for her lost children, who came from a rich Kentucky family and who, debatably, lived with mental illness. This Mary is a gremlinlike former cabaret star with no interest in her children, who married Abe Lincoln (Fire Island’s and Here Lies Love’s Conrad Ricamora) when he was young and confused. See, this Lincoln is pretty definitely into men (hey, that’s also debatable), though he prays to God to repress it … while getting a blow job from his assistant. In Oh, Mary!, with Abe tied up in the Civil War with the South (“… of what?” is her recurring refrain), Mary storms around the White House looking for ways to score booze and entertain herself. She torments her chaperone, Louise (Bianca Leigh, prim as a Pick-a-Little lady in The Music Man), drinks paint thinner, has her stomach pumped so she vomits up the paint thinner, and then drinks the vomit. With Abe’s forcible encouragement, she eventually agrees to take lessons so she can become an actress in the “legitimate theater,” the words said with parodic awe.

The meta joke within the conceit is that Escola, in ascending to an Off Broadway stage, is doing something a little like Mary is, though they too refuse to stay legit for long. Cabaret, Mary insists to Abe, is a world-class art form: “People traveled the world over for my short legs and long medleys!” Escola has written scenes that resemble hoary old melodrama and then punctured them with bursts of broad, filthy comedy. They are climbing the ladder built by Mike & Carlee Productions — the power-broker producers who have propelled a number of comedians, including Alex Edelman and Kate Berlant, to prestigious theatrical acclaim — but they haven’t buttoned up this material for a wider audience or pretended to rise above it. And they really commit to a gag. Escola is a world-class mugger, able to time a double take with nanosecond precision, telegraphing that a punch line may be coming and therefore delivering it with twice the force you expect. When Mary’s acting teacher, played by James Scully in Fiyero-style pants, walks onstage for the first time to give her lessons in Shakespeare, Mary sees him and detonates a drawn-out “fuuuck” at his beauty.

Sam Pinkleton, a director with a background in choreography (he did the movement for Here We Are), keeps it all flowing fast enough for this soufflé to stay inflated. Oh, Mary! is 80 minutes long, and anything more might start to wear on the audience. As nonsensical as the plot developments become — and you’re in for some real nonsense involving the production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre — nobody turns sour with disdain, nobody looks down at their character. Ricamora gives Abe some genuine stormy angst such that you forget he’s not tall enough for the part (that’s part of the gag too, perhaps), and Leigh and Scully find a rhythm between playing foils to Mary’s shenanigans and adding some weirdness of their own. Louise, we quickly learn, has a secret affection for dropping ice cream on her nether regions. But of course.

Escola might have intended to write this play for themselves, yet by the second third of Oh, Mary!, I started to wonder if Mary was being shunted to the side. The First Lady, with as much warmth as Escola invests in her, is still a battering ram of a character, slamming every scene she’s in toward a familiar shape (she’s going to do something crazy!), whereas the rest of the ensemble can be a little more nuanced. The play manages to sneak in a reveal and a backstory, the likes of which are both obvious and too delightful to spoil, that gives Scully and Ricamora some surprisingly moving emotional terrain. (It also occasions a set change to a saloon constructed by the design team Dots with a sort of loving reverence toward the art style of community theater.) Should the play have taken the advice of Mary’s acting teacher and relegated her to … shudder… a character part?

Have no fear: Escola and Mary are not to be upstaged. After a delicious third-act breakdown, Mary makes it clear she’s the undisputed star of this show, and Oh, Mary! ends by combusting into, yes, glorious cabaret. We finally witness some of her legendary madcap medleys in a sequence that approximates the dynamics of “Rose’s Turn” as told by an idiot, full of sound (the melodies chosen are … not Sondheim) and fury. Escola tears down the façade of legitimate theater to reveal that it’s all greasepaint underneath, or perhaps elevates it to the level of pure bedazzled sensation. I’m not really sure at this point. I was too busy laughing.

Oh, Mary! is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

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