bosom buddies

Cole Escola & Conrad Ricamora go back in the closet to dish on being queer, playing dress-up & more

Cole Escola, left, and Conrad Ricamora. Photo by Corey Rives for Queerty.

“I would wear my mom’s wedding dress to bed,” confesses Cole Escola while munching on a vegan bowl at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City’s West Village. 

Outside, there’s a bite in the air on this crisp February day as the sun begins to set on the nearby Hudson River. We’ve just walked the few blocks from Hamlet’s Vintage, where Escola, with co-star Conrad Ricamora, spent the afternoon jumping back in the closet to play dress-up. But there’s a bite inside, too, as cast and crew gather for their pre-show duties at the runaway theatrical hit of the season.

Escola’s wacky one-act play, Oh, Mary!, received accolades, with reviews calling the New York Times Critics’ Pick “sensational” and “a raucous romp.” Raves about the show quickly spread, with the production extending twice as theatergoers clamor to catch the high comedy.

But back to the dress. 

“Well, it was from her first marriage,” Escola tells me, responding to a question about their earliest memories of playing dress-up. “It was very 70s, with bell sleeves and an empire waist. It wasn’t like a wedding cake type of dress. My mom let me wear it to bed because then my dad wouldn’t see me in it. It wasn’t ever discussed, but it was understood that my dad couldn’t see me wearing this dress.”

Cole Escola
“It wasn’t ever discussed, but it was understood that my dad couldn’t see me wearing this dress,” says Cole Escola of wearing his mother’s wedding gown. Photo by Corey Rives for Queerty.

Now audiences can witness Escola eight times a week in a 19th-century hoop skirt (designed by Holly Pierson) as a petulant and fiery first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. But this Mary is less concerned about coordinating social efforts to lift the country’s spirits than headlining a self-produced cabaret act. 

Escola, who admittedly did little research before writing the play, still manages to deliver historical accuracy. According to a childhood friend, as noted in White House records, Mary “now and then could not restrain a witty, sarcastic speech that cut deeper than she intended.” 

With Ricamora in tow as Mary’s husband (aka Abraham Lincoln) and a supporting cast that includes James Scully as Mary’s teacher, Bianca Leigh as Mary’s chaperone, and Tony Macht as Mary’s husband’s assistant (you can see an emerging theme on where the spotlight is intended to shine), Oh, Mary! may first appear as a watershed moment for the writer-actor. But at 37 years old, Escola’s journey to become the “it” person of New York’s downtown theater scene has been nearly two decades in the making. 

“Spite only takes you so far. Not having a safety net meant that I had nothing to lose.”

Cole Escola

“I hated my family so much for being white trash,” Escola said in a previous interview. The economic disparity fueled their desire to succeed “out of spite. But then spite only takes you so far,” they tell me. Escola resented being poor but also recognized that “not having a safety net meant that I had nothing to lose.”

In 2005, Escola moved from Oregon to New York City with “no backup plan,” enrolling at Manhattan Marymount College and dropping out after a year.

“When I first got here, I was just so excited to be around gay people. I went from high school and middle school, being only friends with girls, to then like, ‘Oh, my God, all these fags.’ I no longer felt like the third wheel.”

Ricamora, also fueling up with a protein-packed salad before the evening’s performance, felt similarly distant in high school. “I had to get the f**k out,” he says of his adolescence in Niceville, Florida, located 30 minutes south of the Alabama border.

“When I was 13, I got caught stealing gay porn at our local video store,” he recalls with a contemplative laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, it was straight porn.’ But there were two people that worked there that went to my high school. Nobody wanted to dig deep enough to find out, but internally, I just went to sleep for the next three years.”

In many ways, it’s a small miracle that Escola and Ricamora find themselves portraying the first lady and the 16th president of the United States. 

Conrad Ricomora, left, and Cole Escola in 'Oh, Mary!'
Conrad Ricomora, left, and Cole Escola in ‘Oh, Mary!’ Photo by Emilio Madrid.

Oh, Mary! is Escola’s first foray into long-form theatrical content. Known mostly to audiences for their YouTube videos and TV appearances such as Search Party on Max and Hulu’s Difficult People, industry executives have tapped their offbeat humor in the writer’s room on shows like At Home with Amy Sedaris and to consult on the hit series Hacks. The play’s genesis came to Escola in 2009 when contemplating if Lincoln’s demise might actually benefit Mary. It would take 2020’s lockdown for them to carve out the time to actually write it.

Ricamora, meanwhile, discovered his passion for theater while on a tennis scholarship at the Queens University of Charlotte. He later earned a master of fine arts degree in acting from the University of Tennessee. Despite two Broadway shows, six seasons on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, and a leading role on Hulu’s upcoming How to Die Alone, the newly married actor has had to carve his own path, facing biases along the way. 

“My first show in New York was a huge success. And there were powerful people in the theater world that were like, what do you want to do? And I was like, I would love to do XYZ. And there is an outlet for XYZ. Never once in my 13 years here have I gotten a call to do that. And I’m very qualified to do it,” says Ricamora. “Don’t get me wrong, I love doing the musicals that are about Asian American experiences. Here Lies Love was great because it was set in the Philippines, but it wasn’t about our ‘Filipino-ness,’ It was a political story in which there was no white lens. All that aside, I do like the classics — Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. But it seems like New York is like, no, you’re in this box.”

Conrad Ricamora wears sunglasses and a mohair jacket at a NYC vintage store.
Conrad Ricamora, wearing vintage sunglasses and a mohair coat at Hamlet’s Vintage in New York City. Photo by Corey Rives for Queerty.

With the help of director Sam Pinkleton, whose recent credits include choreographing Sondheim’s final musical, Here We Are, and staging a decidedly queer production of The Wizard of Oz at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Oh, Mary! not only reexamines the box, it blows the lid off. 

Escola and Ricamora tap into the histrionics of a country — and a couple — at odds. Mary is determined to revive her fledgling career as a cabaret artist, while Lincoln strategizes how to keep her at bay. Acting lessons for the legitimate stage? Mary doesn’t need them, quipping, “There’s no difference between theater and cabaret. Theater is just fewer feathers and flatter shoes!”

The 75-minute volley, at times, feels like an SNL sketch about to go awry, the actors’ locked eyes barely keeping their laughter at bay. Escola describes the characters’ relationship as “claustrophobic” but positioned in a theatrical world that offers permission for queer expression and identity. 

Cole Escola, left, and Conrad Ricamora.
Cole Escola, left, and Conrad Ricamora. Photo by Corey Rives for Queerty.

“This is like my imagined back story,” says Escola, perking up in their seat. “Like, I don’t know if you, as a gay youth, had this experience ever meeting a woman who loved your fagginess and was fabulous? I had some female friends who were like, “Oh, I see you. Yeah, like, you would look really cute in my shoes.”

“I had that experience in elementary school with two girls my age,” Ricamora recalls with a laugh. “We would make up dances to Mary J. Blige.”

“And then you grow apart,” says Escola. “I think Abe and Mary have grown apart but stuck together.”

Escola, as the playwright, has lived among all the voices in their head. “All the characters are parts of me,” they say. “Abraham Lincoln represents when I was in middle school, and I used to pray not to be gay. I would watch gay porn and then afterward, be like, ‘Okay, that was it. I’m done now.’ If I were to see this play as a 10-year-old child, Louise [Mary’s chaperone] would be my favorite character because that’s who I aspired to be as a child. And Mary represents how I see myself: Obnoxious. Cloying. Star.”

Cole Escola, left, and Conrad Ricamora.
Cole Escola, left, and Conrad Ricamora. Photo by Corey Rives for Queerty.

Ricamora auditioned for the play just hours after he found out Here Lies Love would end its Broadway run and instinctually tapped into its creator’s dry humor and subtle insecurities. 

“In rehearsal, I was miserable,” Escola confesses, “because I was terrified. And then it opened, and I was like, ‘What was I thinking? This is great!’” 

“I’m 37, and this just didn’t happen based on my idea,” Escola says. “This is also the years of work that I put into monthly sketch shows, what I learned from writing TV scripts, and what I’ve learned from producing my own work. I’ve read in some pieces about the show is ‘new’ or ‘emerging,’ and I’m like, this is my life’s work. I should be able to retire after this.”

Oh, Mary! plays through May 12 in New York City.

Styling by Hamlet Tallaj, Hamlet’s Vintage.

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