curtain call

Conrad Ricamora & Cole Escola deliver a raucous romp through history in ‘Oh, Mary!’

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

The Rundown

Mary Todd Lincoln was, to put it gently, deeply unwell. Abraham Lincoln’s wife was known for her excessive spending, foul temper, and wild mood swings — so it’s only fitting that in 2024, we recognize her for the gay icon she is.

Cole Escola’s new dark comedy, Oh, Mary!, follows the infamous first lady in the weeks leading up to that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Escola (Search Party) writes and stars in the show as Mary Todd Lincoln, with Conrad Ricamora and James Scully playing her husband and acting teacher, respectively. For fans of Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island, Ricamora and Scully render Oh, Mary! a mini-reunion for the 2022 movie, and their comedic chops are once again on full display.

Related: Vote for your favorite Live Theater in this year’s Queerties!

No Tea, No Shade

Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh in "Oh, Mary!"
(from left) Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh in “Oh, Mary!” Photo by Emilio Madrid.

From top to bottom (and yes, those jokes are included, too), Oh, Mary!‘s sharp writing, breakneck pace, and campy performances keep the theater in hysterics until the curtain falls. The unapologetically silly script delivers simultaneous broad comedy and social commentary. Despite the Civil War raging on, Mary has no idea what her husband means by “the South,” thinks the concept of subtext is a lot like being inbred, and finds glee as her chaperone (Bianca Leigh) discovers her G-spot by a wayward scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s all almost as ridiculous as actual American politics.

At the center of it all is Escola’s demented performance as Mary. Sporting a bouncing wig of ringlets and a black gown as if mourning for her life, she screams about her hatred for her role as the first lady and longs for her time on the cabaret circuit — a passion she’ll return to at any cost. Mary’s manic love for performance and unfounded confidence call to mind Mia Goth’s star turn in Pearl, while Escola’s comic timing and deliberately affected delivery evoke the legendary drag performances of Charles Busch.

The show’s technical elements are simple but effective. While largely unremarkable, Cha See’s lighting design punctuates some of the show’s funniest moments with dramatic shifts, and Daniel Kluger’s original piano music feels ripped from the dance halls of the 1800s. Holly Pierson’s period costumes, meanwhile, maintain the play’s humor and queer leanings, with cumbersome hoop skirts giving Oh, Mary!’s ladies ample opportunity for physical comedy. At the same time, the men’s tight vests and high-waisted pants offer the audience some eye candy.

Let’s Have a Moment

Conrad Ricamora as Abraham Lincoln in "Oh, Mary!"
Conrad Ricamora in “Oh, Mary!” Photo by Emilio Mardrid.

Beyond Mary’s untold story, Oh, Mary! peels back the curtain on another open secret of America’s past: some historians think Abraham Lincoln was queer as a three-dollar bill, despite appearing on the five.

In real life, Lincoln lived and slept in the same bed with various men throughout his life, including during his marriage to Mary when she was away, and his letters to some of those men suggest they may have been more than friends. Whether Lincoln was gay or just a product of a different time is anyone’s guess — but in Oh, Mary!, those desires simmer to the surface.

Lincoln’s lust for the men around him and his frequent promises to God of “no more gay” are another of the show’s darkly comedic running jokes, wonderfully delivered by Ricamora. His Lincoln is equal parts brooding and boorish, a perfect foil to Escola’s maniacal Mary.

The Last Word

Cole Escola in "Oh, Mary!"
Cole Escola in “Oh, Mary!” Photo by Emilio Madrid.

As Mary laments to her husband in the show, “When you keep me off the stage, you make the whole world miserable!” From Escola’s mouth, those words ring true. 

Oh, Mary! invites audiences to laugh at the theatrics of American politics through the lens of its most deranged first lady. Besides its nonstop laughs and unabashed absurdity, the queerness of the show’s cast and creative team is a breath of fresh air: comedy by the gays, for the gays, hits differently. And when it comes to comedy, Oh, Mary! attacks with guns a-blazing — pun intended.

Oh, Mary! plays Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through March 24.

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