Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party Review
What would you expect from a winner in last year’s New York International Fringe Festival entitled “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party”? Yes, seven Abraham Lincolns in stovepipe hats, topcoats and beards disco-dancing and playing in a jug band and having fun with a plucked plastic chicken.
Yet the play, which has now opened Off-Broadway at Theater Row, alternates such campy interludes with a knowing political satire and a solid story. True, the plot twists seem unlikely, but more far-fetched scenarios play out regularly on CNN. Ok, there is less depth than there could be, but “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” occasionally uses Lincoln for something like a mini-treatise on American culture, with brief quotes from Lincoln’s most eloquent addresses and allusions to his most enduring philosophy. Admittedly, much of the show is derivative, borrowing from better works. But, helped along by an able cast performing multiple roles under the direction of Chris Smith, this theatrical mash-up offers satisfactions beyond just the title and that jug band.
We are in Menard County, Illinois, a still-rural area where Abraham Lincoln once lived, a clear point of pride with the locals, and one reason why they are so aghast at the Christmas pageant put on by teacher Harmony Green’s fourth grade class. Instead of the usual Christian figures, the teacher has the children play U.S. presidents, but what they say goes beyond the usual platitudes:
“When I moved to Springfield to become a lawyer,” one fourth-grader dressed as Lincoln recites, “I was very close with my friend, Joshua Speed. Very, very close. We even shared a bed.”
The townsfolk react in shock.
“There‘s nothing naughty about my love for Joshua…”
Reaction is swift. The teacher is fired, and put on trial.
What follows after the prologue focuses on three characters inspired by the three main figures of “Inherit The Wind” – the prosecutor, the defense and a visiting reporter. While the characters in “Abraham Lincoln” even talk about “the trial of the century,” the main thrust of this play is less the debate over Lincoln’s sexuality (there is very little about this, actually) nor anything else about the trial itself than it is a series of behind-the-scenes machinations. It is told in three acts, each from a different character’s point of view a la Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests”:
Anton Renault (Arnie Burton) is an award-winning gay New York Times reporter in town to write (in the words of one of the locals) “another elitist hatchet job about small town America.”
Tom Hauser (Robert Hogan) is the district attorney prosecuting the teacher. He is a former Congressman who left Washington because even his Republican colleagues felt his outing of prominent political figures went too far. He has now decided he wants to stage a comeback and run for governor of Illinois. He is what another character calls “the ultimate symbol of backwards cultural conservatives,” and he rants about “the radical homosexual agenda.”
Regina Lincoln (Stephanie Pope Caffey) is an ambitious state senator who is aiming to become the first black female governor of Illinois. When she learns that Tom is planning to run as well, she agrees to defend the schoolteacher herself, to match her former mentor headline-for-headline, but intends this only as a threat to force him out of the race.
Things do not go as expected, with tragic or at least over-the-top consequences involving political intrigue, two characters who are secretly gay, blackmail, violence and a psychotic breakdown.
Playwright Aaron Loeb, who grew up in Illinois and whose day job is developing video games, seems intent on making sure our attention does not flag during the 150 minutes of his show. This helps explain the sometimes-jarring interruption of the plot with wacky Abe routines, all seven actors chucking the various characters they play and donning the Lincoln façade for dance numbers or snazzy Greek chorusing or jazz-hand posturing. It is probably also the reason why one member of the audience is selected at random as our “representative” and gets to choose the order of the three acts. Sometimes, presumably, the act told from the point of view of the reporter goes first, sometimes the prosecutor’s, sometimes the defense attorney’s.
I am not sure what this gimmick adds. Indeed, I started wondering what the play would have been like if Loeb had trusted his story and his characters enough to let it all unfold more conventionally, stripped of its Abes and interactivity. The intelligence and insight of some of the debates – such as that between a black character and a gay character over black homophobia – would have stood out more. But so might some of the unoriginal characterizations and implausible dialogue. A closeted gay man invents a girlfriend named Tiffany in Canada, a joke that comes to you direct from “Avenue Q.” (It works better with puppets.) When a reporter asks Regina whether her defense of the teacher means she is a supporter of gay rights, she fumbles around until she decides to divert attention from the question by proclaiming “Taxes bad! Support the troops!” This is a satire of the way politicians speak; it is not the way people actually speak.
But amidst all the silliness, as long as it’s funny, who cares?
So, no, “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party,” an unlikely, amusing and occasionally thought-provoking entertainment, probably works best the way it is – a house divided, half “Wind,” half Fringe.
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Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party
Theater Row’ Acorn Theater (410 West 42nd Street)
Written by Aaron Loeb
Directed by Chris Smith
Choreography by Vince Pesce
Scenic design by Bill English, lighting design by Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager, costume design by Rebecca Lustig, sound design by Kim Fuhr-Carbone
Original music composition by Rick Burkhardt and Rick Hip-Flores
Stephanie Pope Caffey
Ticket prices: $51.25. Premium: $66.25. Student rush: $20
Running time: Two and a half hours with two intermissions.
The play runs through September 5, 2010
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