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“Oh, Mary!” reviewed

Cole Escola has proven a one-of-a-kind creator on the New York cabaret scene over the past decade. Their offbeat sense of humor lands when executed via equal parts smart writing and masterful performance. Escola’s latest project is not a solo piece like their prior projects but a five-person comedy, titled Oh, Mary!, making its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. The new work succeeds in exemplifying Escola’s talent as a playwright and leading actor.

Oh, Mary! sees Escola as Mary Todd Lincoln in her days as America’s First Lady. In this gently fictional interpretation, she is a former cabaret star, repressed by her marriage to President Abraham Lincoln (Conrad Ricamora showing off expert comedic skills). As Lincoln’s future assassin John Wilkes Booth (James Scully, a standout) enters the picture, twists and turns ensue. (I’ll avoid elaborating on further plot details to prevent spoiling them, but I will say that each is unexpected and creative.)

Escola has found their perfect partner in director Sam Pinkleton (who gave shape to Noah Diaz’s moving 2022 off-Broadway play You Will Get Sick). Pinkleton sturdily takes the reins of Escola’s clever comedy and keeps the laughs moving at a steady pace. He leans into his experience as a choreographer (Tony-nominated in 2017 for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) to guide an abstract palate of physical comedy which seems to rise off the pages of Escola’s tight script. Remaining cast members Bianca Leigh and Tony Macht provide exceptional support in raising the stakes as the story unfolds.

Infused into Oh, Mary! is delightful original music by Daniel Kluger, arranged by David Dabbon, which elevates the storytelling to musical theater-like proportions (Kluger and Drew Levy excel with the production’s sound design). Holly Pierson’s costumes (gowns for Escola are crafted by Astor Yang) balance the play’s historical setting with its contemporary sense of melodrama. Scenic design firm Dots and lighting designer Cha See work hand in hand to anchor the action.

As a slew of new plays has gone into production since theater’s return from the pandemic, what has remained rare is the kind of comedy that leaves the audience laughing into delirium and floating out of the venue. Thankfully, Oh, Mary! is a prime candidate for audiences seeking this kind of joyous mental getaway.