Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Oh, Mary!

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 11, 2024

Oh, Mary! by Cole Escola. Directed by Sam Pinkleton. Set design by dots. Costume design by Holly Pierson. Lighting design by Cha See. Sound design by Daniel Kluger & Drew Levy. Wig design by Leah J. Loukas. Music by Daniel Kluger. Arrangements by David Dabbon.
Cast: Cole Escola, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Bianca Leigh, and Tony Macht
Theater: Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45th St.

Conrad Ricamora Cole Escola, and Bianca Leigh
Photo by Emilio Madrid
Say you had managed to pull off a consummate fusion of talent and good fortune to become the darling of the 2023-24 Off-Broadway season with a queer-centric, campy, and raucous comedy that would wind up having a twice-extended, sold-out run in the West Village. And then, suddenly, you have the opportunity to take the whole kit and caboodle uptown to Broadway. Whaddaya do? Do you pull back on some of the gross-out jokes and potty-mouth dialog, bring in some big name actors to lure in audiences willing to fork over as much as $300-plus per ticket, spiffy up the set design, and/or pad the script to stretch out its 80-minute run time? Well, in the case of Cole Escola's Oh, Mary!, opening tonight at the Lyceum Theatre, it's none-of-the-above. You simply lean in on what worked so well downtown and go for the gold on your own terms.

And what works? Pretty much everything in the bonkers yet clever-as-hell affair that is Oh, Mary!, a farcical concoction you might think of as an inspired blend of a Charles Busch spoofy melodrama and a dip of the ladle into the world of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (rowdier than The Book of Mormon though; more like their film "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut"). Serve with an unexpected dollop of female empowerment, and you're in for quite a party.

Your hostess is an off-kilter, alcoholic, foul-tempered and equally foul-mouthed 19th century politician's wife. You might have heard of her: Mary Todd Lincoln, married to the guy with the beard and top hat (Conrad Ricamora). Mary is the role that Escola has made their own, and one that they (Escola's preferred pronoun) embrace within the broadest extremes of slapstick while managing to incorporate a surprising touch of vulnerability.

I say "surprising," because Mary does not present as a sympathetic character. She truly is a piece of work, mean-spirited and completely self-absorbed (what Civil War, and why should she even care?). She is an equal-opportunity offender, turning viciously on the closest she has to friends, like her companion/chaperone (Bianca Leigh) and the handsome guy (James Scully) whom her husband has enlisted to keep her occupied with acting lessons.

The one thing that allows us to feel some degree of sympathy for Mary is the fact that her husband is often nastier than she, with Ricamora, under the frenetic-paced direction of Sam Pinkleton, doubling down on his domineering portrayal of Abe as the two go at it like a crazed Punch and Judy.

More than anything, Mary is bored beyond endurance at being holed up in the White House and longs to pursue her dream of being a cabaret performer, an idea that is cruelly ridiculed and quashed by her controlling husband, who devises the acting lessons to keep her out of the way. Meanwhile, Abe revels in his own fantasies with a mix of gleeful self-indulgence and a sense of closeted shame as he pursues his sexual satisfaction with a male aide (Tony Macht), so that the Lincoln White House suggests a variation on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. (Ricamora also throws a bit of Richard Nixon into his portrayal, making him even more of the villain vis-à-vis Mary.)

Things start to change for Mary when she allows herself to believe her acting coach actually cares for her, and that she may yet escape the prison of her restrictive life. How this all plays out gives Oh, Mary! a number of smartly crafted and rewarding twists and turns as things move toward its most satisfying resolution.

Beyond the wild and crazy ride that is the play's content, along with the perfect comic timing of its polished performances, the production is blessed with excellent design elements, from the deliberately unfussy sets by the collective known as dots, to the flouncy take on period costumes by Holly Pierson, to the wonderful selection and use of music before, during, and at the end of the evening. Who knows how long this party will last, but by sticking steadfastly to its downtown vibe, Oh, Mary! has the makings of a genuine Broadway crowd-pleaser.