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The Vaudeville Hit of the Season: 'Oh, Mary!'

Updated: Mar 26


Cole Escola as Mary Todd Lincoln, painting by David Patrick Walsh

Everyone’s talking about the hottest ticket in town, folks—this one is definitely ring-a-ding-ding make-ol’-Peggy-sing! Oh, Mary! is probably one of the most raucously funny pieces of theatre this reviewer has seen in recent years. There has been a serious dearth of genuinely funny content of late, be it on the stage or screen, & ergo it was ever so refreshing to go to the theatre and laugh—nay—positively cackle the night away. I could hardly catch my breath between guffaws!

Written & performed by Cole Escola, screen legend of recent vintage as seen on Search Party, Ziwe, & At Home With Amy Sedaris, the show follows Mary Todd Lincoln, wife & First Lady to Abe Lincoln (the one and only!). Her quandary is that of many well-to-do ladies of that era: what to do with her time (it is such an interesting mind-blast to picture life without television, film, or any form of modern media, on top of existing in an era where the theatre is considered a little shameful—can you even imagine? I’d be out of a job!). 

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop: like many well-to-do ladies then & now, (ahem, The Real Housewives) Mary Todd has developed a taste for the drink. In the very first scene we are plopped into the middle of a marriage made as tense as a tightrope not only by Mary’s dipsomania but by the fact that Mr. Lincoln is, in fact, mired in that little American conflict now known as The Civil War (or The War of Northern Aggression, if you’re tuning in from the South). Mary Todd, in her gilded cage, is blithely unaware of anything outside her own misery & boredom, the poor dear, & her struggle with Abe is, it would seem, comparable in anguish to the struggle between the North & South (some of the funniest moments in the show are when Abe Lincoln bellows that he is in fact the President involved in a historic war, a reminder that is as much for the audience as it is for Mary Todd & the other characters, since we are so caught up in the small-scale, hilarious drama of their household that it’s easy to forget the world outside the claustrophobic walls of the White House, where poor Mary mopes & fumes). 

Mary wants more than anything to return to the—gasp!—cabaret. For shame! The cabaret is where Abe met lil’ ol’ Mary Todd (their little secret), and now he forbids it—how would it look for the First Lady to be in a cabaret? (He does have a point). They compromise: she will have acting lessons & when she’s ready she can audition for a respectable part in a respectable Shakespearean production. She’s no fool: she knows he’s just trying to keep her busy, but when the acting teacher shows up & turns out to be a tall, dashing young man (when I attended, multiple members of the audience made ‘who-do-we-have-hear’ noises of aroused surprise when the handsome actor, James Scully, entered with a clever smirk), Mary Todd begins to change her tune.

The pace is a mad dash, laugh-a-minute vaudevillian spectacle; the comedic timing flawless; the set & costumes spot on; the mood irreverently joyful & furious simultaneously; the use of dropped-in modern expletives (‘dumbass,’ ‘fuck you’ etc) as well as the salacious plot turns (I have it on good authority that Abe Lincoln’s sexuality has long been debated amongst historians—may I simply say, Cole Escola had a good heaping amount of sexy fun with this) felt sinfully silly; & don’t get me started on the surprises in the plot (none of which have been revealed here, you’re welcome!).

Hats off to a triumphantly goofy good time! I hope to see more of Cole Escola’s madcap medleys in the very near future.

—Peggy Hepburn

Oh, Mary! is playing at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York City. Photos by Emilio Madrid, courtesy of The Lucille Lortel Theatre.


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