How Cole Escola Turned History Into New York's Most Hilarious Play

cole escola oh mary
Cole Escola on 'Oh, Mary!'Emilio Madrid

The poster for Oh, Mary! boldly reads “The Greatest Play of the Generation!” Which generation, exactly? That’s not important. This show is timeless.

The uproarious new play starring and written by multi-hyphenate Cole Escola and directed by Sam Pinkleton (best known for choreographing the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812) is halfway through its initial limited run at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Originally slated to end in March, the show recently announced an extension through May 5 after completely selling out the first part of its run.

Filling a theater for the entirety of a show’s run is no small task. In this economy? A herculean feat! But Escola did it. And I say with utmost certainty that they’ll do it again. (And again.)

cole escola oh mary
Cole Escole and Bianca Leigh in Oh, Mary! The comedy about Mary Todd Lincoln runs through May 5 at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Emilio Madrid

The unlikely play about Mary Todd Lincoln (yes, former first lady and widow of Abraham) is the hottest ticket in town. Audiences and critics alike are raving. And rightfully so! Oh, Mary! is as smart as it is stupid. It’s as funny as it is serious. And, most importantly, it’s only 80 minutes with no intermission.

Anyone who rolled their eyes at the use of the term “multi-hyphenate” earlier should take a second to acquaint themselves with Escola’s oeuvre. This is a person who, at the age of 37, has carved out a lane so distinct that no single title could aptly describe what they’ve accomplished in their colorful career. Cole is a writer, comedian, actor, and singer fondly known by those in the know for their cabaret work. Others probably recognize them from appearances on television shows like Search Party, Mozart in the Jungle, or At Home with Amy Sedaris. Despite all that, Oh, Mary! is what’s turning out to be Escola’s career-defining moment. And Town & Country is here to celebrate that.

We spoke with Escola on, of course, President’s Day about writing Oh, Mary!, inhabiting Mary Todd Lincoln, and what popularity really feels like.

Why Mary Todd Lincoln, and why now?

I wish I had a better answer for this. There was never this moment, like, after the 2016 election or something, where I sat down and thought to myself, what does America need right now? I thought the idea was funny and I wanted to do it. That’s really all it was.

cole escola oh mary
Conrad Ricamora as Abraham Lincoln in Oh, Mary.Emilio Madrid

How long did you work on writing and developing this show?

I had the idea in 2009, but I loved it so much that I was afraid I couldn't write it as well as I saw it in my head. So instead of working on it, I would just tell different people about the idea hoping they would pull it out of me somehow. Or like, explode with excitement: “Oh my God, that's the most genius idea I've ever heard. You must get that on paper right now!” But mostly people were just like, “That’s funny. You should do that.” So, every once in a while, I would email myself outlines for scenes as they came to me. But in 2020 during lockdown is when I really sat down and decided it was now or never.

As absurd as this show is, the facts are all there—loosely. The American Civil War, the Lincoln letters, and rumors that our 16th president was either gay or bisexual, Mary’s alcoholism… Did you go in with a strict historical framework and then fill in the blanks?

I didn’t fact check ever. I wrote the show from the point of view of the audience, which is our collective third grade understanding of who Mary Todd Lincoln was. And during rehearsal Sam, our director, would send me things like, “Oh, my God, look!” [because] this one telegram in particular addressed to Abraham Lincoln said, “come collect your wife she’s making a fool of herself.” And I’d be like, “We really got this right!”

So many parts of her feel sanitized throughout history, and to play them could be seen as misogynist or could make her unlikable as a character. If you’re telling this story from President Lincoln’s noble point of view and you’ve got this crazy, drunk harpy, it almost makes her feel stupid. But I love those parts of her. I didn’t go into writing this to exploit those aspects of her, I went into it writing those aspects about me. This show is more about me than it is her. And I just found out that we overlap in so many ways.

cole escola oh mary
Cole Escola, as Mary Todd Lincoln, and James Scully, as John Wilkes Booth, in Oh, Mary!Emilio Madrid

Were you worried about offending anyone with your take on her life’s journey?

No. I certainly thought some people might be offended by it. I wouldn’t say I was worried though. I had an eye out for it and remember thinking some people might be like “how dare you make jokes about her not caring about her children! I’m offended as a mother!” But those people just need to sit in that offense.

Now that Mary Todd Lincoln is officially an essential leading lady in theatrical canon thanks to you, who are your other theatrical dream roles?

Well, I thought about doing a series of different Marys, like Typhoid Mary and Mary of Nazareth.

So few plays are legitimately funny. How did you get your voice to translate so authentically from page to stage?

Two of my producers Mike & Carlee—who normally mount comedy shows and worked with Kate Berlant on KATE—stayed completely out of the way and did what producers should do, and just made my vision happen. It was the right alchemy of having them and Lucas McMahon and Kevin McCollum, who got involved as producers a little later and come from a theater background. I got the right people on the right project at the right time. I truly don’t know how. It’s so hard to get things made.

The audience has been a who’s who of famously funny New Yorkers. What is it like performing for a room full of your peers night after night?

This is the first thing I’ve made where the final product matches the idea I had in my head. Mostly I’m thrilled and proud. So, love it, or hate it, or feel lukewarm about it, I can look at it and know that it’s exactly what I wanted to make and I’m showing people exactly what I wanted them to see.

You make a nod to Blythe Danner in your pre-show announcement, and she was recently in attendance at a performance. Did she impart you with any wisdom?

She was exactly what you’d expect. Warm, gracious… and she told me to drink a big smoothie because it was a two-show day, and we met between shows. She also told me I look 15 and said I was a gift to New York, which is something I will be comforting myself with for the next 40 years.

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