By Lawrence Toppman, firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published at The Charlotte Observer: Monday, Aug. 20, 2012
Every time I review an edgy comedy by Queen City Theatre Company, I get angry e-mails.
Sons of Ireland wrote after “The Irish Cruse” to inform me they do not have smaller-than-average penises. Catholics complained after “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” that the only woman to give birth as a virgin was not a lesbian.
I don’t want hostile e-mails insisting Honest Abe was a heterosexual, so hear me now: “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party” is a comedy. Nobody’s trying to make a well-defended case that the 16th president was not straight. (That gossip applies more to his predecessor, James Buchanan, the only White House chief to die as a bachelor.)
Playwright Aaron Loeb does bring up the fact that Lincoln and fellow bachelor Joshua Speed shared a bed for four years, a custom that wasn’t uncommon for men in the 1830s. But whether they had a romance, a bromance or just a close friendship isn’t the point.
Loeb explores the hysteria surrounding a fourth-grade pageant in Illinois, where a 9-year-old speculates that Abe might have swung both ways.
His play is a strange, often compelling amalgam of vaudeville, sharp satire, blunt satire, surreal musical moments, affecting scenes of human frailty and direct addresses to the audience.
If you go
When: Through Aug. 25.
Where: Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
Tickets: $22-24, 704-372-1000, carolinatix.org.
Not a single person comes off as consistently admirable or repellant – except, perhaps, for Abe himself, who appears at odd times to give puzzlingly ambiguous advice to one troubled soul. Loeb reminds us that even venal people can be compassionate under certain circumstances, and vice versa.
The play centers around a concept I never understood: The teacher (Jennifer Quigley) is in court for The Trial of the Century, but on what charge? (She’s already been fired and had her license revoked.)
Everyone associated with the trial hopes to make political capital from it. Gay-hating prosecutor Tom (Christopher Chandler) and his political adviser, Lloyd (Daniel Breuer) are preparing Tom’s run for governor of Illinois. Defense attorney Regina (Cynthia Farbman Harris) and her aide, Tina (Iesha Hoffman), hope to expose Tom as a bigot and win the primary themselves. (Farbman seems to be channeling Sarah Palin, and her character is no more noble than Tom.)
Gay New York Times reporter Anton (Matt Kenyon) sees a long-awaited chance to crush Tom and win a second Pulitzer, and he doesn’t worry about collateral damage. The teacher is at best stupidly naïve and at worst someone advancing an agenda in a very inappropriate place. Jerry (Blake Smith), Tom’s closeted gay son, seems at first an object of pity but selfishly adds to the lunacy by telling a damning lie.
Loeb and director Glenn Griffin put these characters through a carnival atmosphere of back-stabbing, backbiting and back-patting (their own). Choreographer Karen Christensen underlines moods with a jazz-hands dance to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” a country line dance, a rhumba or a waltz for two Abes. (Everyone gets to play Abe.)
The play feels like an exaggeration of “Inherit the Wind,” the drama about the Scopes trial of 1925: Loeb treats the unseen people of central Illinois like the hillbilly Tennesseans who refused to believe a teacher should mention evolution in his classroom. Menard County, the seat of Loeb’s trial, adjoins Springfield, the state capital and a city of 120,000, but openly gay folks are apparently rare as wildebeests.
He makes a valid point, of course: If Lincoln was gay or bisexual, the magnitude of his accomplishments wouldn’t diminish. In fact, people might be less homophobic, if someone they admired so much turned out not to be straight.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched the parade of black-bearded, top-hatted actors – black and white, gay and straight, male and female – that Loeb was telling us Lincoln was great because he encompassed all of humanity, empathizing with every person in America. And isn’t that what any president ought to do?