OH, MARY! A First-Rate First Lady Campsterpiece — Review


Conrad Ricamora and Cole Escola | Photo: Emilio Madrid

Juan A. Ramirez
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February 8, 2024 9:15 PM

With a devilish grin and combustible temper, Cole Escola’s take on Mary Todd Lincoln sits nicely within the pantheon of Middle American women with hair-trigger psychoses the ridiculously talented writer-performer has created.

In Oh, Mary!, a delirious new comedy written by and starring Escola, the unknowable First Lady is a former cabaret star, rebelling against the respectable life her President husband (Conrad Ricamora) requires by hitting the bottle and raising hell, mostly for her put-upon chaperone (Bianca Leigh). But while he plots how to take his drooling over a young assistant (Tony Macht) to the next level (the hypocrite!) he procures a handsome acting teacher (James Scully) to assuage his rascally bride.

It’s a decision he’ll come to regret.

For the audience, though, to spend these 80 minutes at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is a much sounder choice. The joke-per-minute average alone could fuel a decade’s worth of comedies.

As in last year’s exquisitely detailed vaudevillian parody, Our Home Out West, the world Escola conjures (then queers, then rebuilds, then pisses on) is equal parts love and dismissal. It’s one whose giggly hysteria is fueled by deep connoisseurship and an even deeper understanding of the balm that is well-deployed stupidity.

The Company | Photo: Emilio Madrid

Sam Pinkleton’s direction perfectly matches Escola’s frenzied humor and grande dame queenerie – no easy feat – and draws quick-witted performances from the cast. It’s the kind of show where Escola (flouncing around in a stunning Astor Yang gown; Holly Pierson dressed the others), frets over which book to pick from an obviously fake wallpaper case before selecting the sole real prop. (dots, the ever-popular scenic design collective, gets to flex its comedy muscles; as does Cha See, with her melodramatic lighting cues).

“Theatre is just fewer feathers and flatter shoes,” Mary hisses at Lincoln’s dismissal of her beloved cabaret. Were I inclined to look for a deeper artist statement in Oh, Mary! – and this, like most of Escola’s work, seems to sharply advise against so doing – I would deem it a rebuttal against the legitimacy, good taste, and “straightness” (if you can believe it) of most self-serious art; a paean to culture’s pride and perjury.

That’s all there, probably. But like the myriad allusions, in-jokes, and references with which Escola imbues their work, they’re both beside, and the whole, point. Only the best jesters are allowed to camp in these courts.

Oh, Mary! is in performance through March 24, 2024 at Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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