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How Mary Todd Lincoln became Broadway’s biggest (and drunkest) new star

6 days ago 43

NEW YORK — “I am the stupidest person here,” Cole Escola said in a speech last month. “And I mean that as an insult to all of you.”

They had just won a special Drama Desk Award for “Oh, Mary!,” their off-Broadway play that was extended twice before it was cleared for a Broadway run. The show also earned them the almost-serious “Cate Blanchett Award for Good Acting” from the hosts of the “Las Culturistas” podcast and the actually serious Outer Critics Circle Award for best lead actor in an off-Broadway play.

Like much of Escola’s work, “Oh, Mary!” is indeed stupid — but rigorously so. They wrote and starred in the heavily fictionalized play that envisions Mary Todd Lincoln as an alcoholic first lady whose dreams of cabaret stardom are stifled by her husband. One of many rapturous accolades was from the New York Times: “You’ll be losing your mind with joy.”

During the run, Escola posed for backstage photos with the likes of Pedro Pascal, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sally Field and Steven Spielberg — and is not bashful about how exciting these brushes with fame can be. “This is why I do what I do, to be recognized by artists that I love,” they said. “For Laurie Metcalf to stay afterward? I mean, fun! Dream!”

Escola dazzled as a guest on Seth Meyers’s and Jimmy Fallon’s late-night shows. In May, a certain fashion editor named Anna Wintour invited them to a certain charity event called the Met Gala. “She is actually incredibly warm and gracious, and that makes her more intimidating,” Escola said of Wintour.

Escola has been a revered cult figure in the comedy and New York cabaret scenes for more than 15 years. But they’ve never come close to such exposure.

That’s not to say that they’ve been unsuccessful. On television, they acted on “Smash” and “Search Party,” wrote on “Hacks” and “Ziwe,” and did both on “Difficult People,” “At Home With Amy Sedaris” and the low-budget Logo TV sketch show “Jeffery and Cole Casserole.”

They’ve appeared in dozens of their own self-produced YouTube videos — hallmarks include showbiz tropes (see: the Old Hollywood parody “Our Home Out West”), women trying to conceal immense pain (see: the chirpy but suicidal character Joyce Conner) and childish scatology (see: the vaguely “Murder, She Wrote”-ish “Pee Pee Manor”).

These projects tend to be joke-dense and absurd but packed with meticulous craft. The finale of Escola’s most recent cabaret show was an original song called “Poopy Sue,” performed inexplicably in an ornate, unwieldy, historically accurate Queen Elizabeth I costume.

“Oh, Mary!,” which officially opens Thursday on Broadway, is the apotheosis of Escola’s work and its simultaneous celebration and satire of performance. The play is self-consciously theater — as in theater pronounced “thee-a-tah” — but there’s a bit of darkness. Escola’s Mary Todd Lincoln has lost loved ones. Sometimes she loses herself to alcohol. Occasionally she loses touch with reality altogether. But she never loses sight of her ambition to be onstage. In this sense, she’s not so different from Escola.

“Mary is trying to prove herself, and she has these really vulnerable dreams and huge blind spots about how she appears to other people,” Escola said of the character. “I have been wanting to make a show like this since I’ve been making things. So in a lot of ways, this show is about me wanting to put on this show.”

Escola chatted last month at the New York office of The Washington Post, just blocks from the studio where they’ve been rehearsing ahead of the Broadway opening. They were still in rehearsal clothes: faded black sweatpants, New Balance sneakers, a mint-colored T-shirt the same shade as the green smoothie they grabbed on the way over.

This year, they’ve had to pay more attention to diet and self-care. Just before “Oh, Mary!” opened off-Broadway in February, Escola lost their voice. They called in an emergency vocal coach. “And then they put me on steroids,” Escola said with a smile. “I felt like a true theater star.” But after a week of intense mood swings, they were happy to cease treatment.

The role is physically demanding. Mary appears in almost every scene. She wails, she sings, she throws herself on the ground, she dances, she vomits. Escola likens each performance to doing two high-intensity interval trainings back to back “and then four in a row on Saturday and Sunday.” Adjusting to eight shows a week meant adjusting their diet.

“I was a vegan, and I will be a vegan again, but I’d just be so exhausted and starving that I was just, like, ‘I can’t be picky.’” They’ve started ordering eggs at their local diner in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Has the show’s success been everything it’s cracked up to be? Escola considered the question before a smile crept across their face. “Um … yeah,” they said. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, but there is a cost. “It’s lonely, and it feels like eating cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” they said. Their life has become solipsistic. They’ve spent most of their time thinking and talking about themselves — to their creative team, to their friends, to the press. “This isn’t a good way to keep friends.”

It’s also not a great way to keep lovers: “I have gone on some dates and some sex dates, but I’m so tired I feel like a bad date.”

“I can see how actually famous people lose their minds,” Escola said. “If your life was that way all the time, you would just go through the world thinking, ‘Well, yeah, I’m in the middle, and everyone else is sort of in my court.’”

But their fears of becoming a “fame-climby monster” are tempered by the fact that all of this attention came due to “the stupidest play that could ever be written.”

“I play Mary Todd Lincoln, I wrote it, I drink my own puke out of a bucket, and that is getting me into the Met Gala?” Escola said. “So I’m just going to enjoy this moment because it will be over, which is good, which is a relief.”

Okay, so is “Oh, Mary!” really that stupid? Yes. There is potty humor. There are gay jokes. Mary is not aware that the Civil War is happening or who is fighting whom. She addresses a portrait of George Washington as her mother. So, yeah: stupid.

But then there are also stupid details that could be written only by someone who knows a lot about movies and theater. Toward the end of the show, Mary drags a chair across the stage while singing, a reference to Fosse choreography. When she falls down, her hoop skirt flips up to reveal white boxer shorts dotted with red hearts, like a Warner Bros. cartoon. “Oh, Mary!” opens on closed velvet curtains, its footlights shifting colors in homage to the beginning of “Hello, Dolly!”

“Those things are always for four people, and it’s usually only two people who appreciate it,” Escola said. The opening was orchestrated by the lighting director Cha See. “We needed something to say, ‘This is a serious play, but we’re stupid.’”

The director, Sam Pinkleton, also uses that word a lot. “I have a huge hunger for deep stupidity,” Pinkleton said of “Oh, Mary!” “And, yes, it’s stupid, it’s deeply idiotic, but it’s not snarky, and that’s something that is really defining for Cole.”

Pinkleton was talking in the rehearsal studio, sitting in front of a wall made into an ersatz mood board for the show, plastered with set sketches, digital treatments for lobby designs and printouts of cast photos from unrelated high school theater productions.

He and Escola wanted “Oh, Mary!” to be a play that “looked like a play.” “We asked the designers to pretend to be bad designers and make a bad set,” he said. Indeed, the set is intentionally flat and flimsy. The White House interior is far from historically accurate. “But nothing is being mocked. It all comes from love.”

“Cole is unapologetically sincere and openhearted and committed, and that might be part of why the play’s resonating for people,” Pinkleton continued. “It does actually have a big heart.”

Inspired by the black-and-white production photos that populated theater lobbies in the 1980s, Escola and Pinkleton tapped the photographer Daniel Rampulla to shoot Escola in fictitious roles — to display them in the lobby alongside actual portraits of Broadway stars. The images pay sly homage to staples of regional theater: There’s Escola in a habit, serving “Nunsense”; Escola in a poodle skirt, serving “Grease”; in repose caked in heavy age makeup, serving any number of dramas featuring a dying matriarch.

Pinkleton had choreographed Escola in Dan Fishback’s 2012 downtown musical “The Material World.” Last year, Escola’s agent reconnected the pair for “Oh, Mary!” “He immediately got the Ann Miller references, the Tallulah Bankhead references, the theater references, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s him,’” Escola remembered.

In rehearsal, the cast ran through a scene in a saloon. The director took notes on a small yellow legal pad. He asked that a prop pint glass be replaced with a more realistic whiskey tumbler. “It looks like she’s drinking iced tea,” Pinkleton said.

A crew member asked whether there would be liquid in the glass. “There can be,” Pinkleton replied. “It’s Broadway!”

Escola performed blackout drunkenness with remarkable expertise. Had alcohol ever been a problem for them? “It was a big problem,” they said.

Jeffery Self, who co-created the Logo TV show “Jeffery and Cole Casserole” with Escola in 2009, remembers those days. “At the height of their using substances, they were their own worst enemy,” Self recalled.

Self saw autobiographical links in “Oh, Mary!” “It really does talk about alcoholism in a really interesting way,” he said. “Because they’re such a genius, to have wrapped it in this hilarious thing, if you’re not paying too close attention, you don’t even realize it’s quite a testament to overcoming.”

Fishback, who briefly dated Escola and has remained a friend, agrees. “It feels like the first time Cole’s been really personal and vulnerable in a show,” the playwright and songwriter said. (Full disclosure: This writer once appeared in “Squirts,” a live revue curated by Fishback at the La MaMa theater.) “It’s a comedic rumination on addiction and on being a performer, and I felt like I was being gifted someone’s truth.”

Escola has been open about other difficulties in their life. They’ve spoken of a tough childhood in Oregon, of feeling like their theatrical ambitions burdened their single mother. They moved to New York, where they attended Marymount Manhattan College but could afford only one year. In 2007, a serious assault by a stranger on the street sent them back to Oregon to recover, unsure whether they would be able to return to New York.

But return they did. They made ends meet by doing sex work. “I remember being with a john when Obama was elected,” Escola recalled. “We were at an ATM on the Upper West Side. He was getting cash out for me, and I heard cheers erupt from windows all around.”

Escola lived on friends’ couches on and off for more than two years. “It was scary when it felt like they were a little out of control,” Fishback said. “And when I found out that they decided to get sober, it was a huge relief.” Escola has not had a drink or used drugs in 12 years.

Things are better now, better than they’ve ever been. But things have also been bad. In February, early in the run of “Oh, Mary!,” Escola’s younger brother Kyle died. It’s a loss they’re not yet ready to discuss in detail.

“That’s another reason why I felt so insane and self-centered lately, because I’ve also spent a lot of time in therapy talking about my grief,” Escola said. “The lows have been super low, and the highs have been super high.”

In the aftermath, they leaned on support from close friends, including the comedian Amy Sedaris, who has also lost a sibling. “They’re still tender to it, they still break down and cry,” Sedaris said.

Sedaris has offered support in a variety of ways. She gave Escola a key to her West Village apartment, where they sometimes took naps between shows. She helped them get ready for the Met Gala, adding the orange carnations they carried in their Thom Browne Hector bag. She decorated their new Broadway dressing room, even though Escola rejected her vision for a Victorian sick room with a single bed and a wheeled lunch tray.

“They wanted to do a 1930s theme, and I was, like, ‘Snooze-a-roo,’” Sedaris recalled. “They were like, ‘Dusty rose,’ and I was like, ‘You mean menopause rose?’” Sedaris, admirably, seems to acknowledge the pain Escola has endured without wallowing in it.

Escola has said that “Oh, Mary!” is a reflection of their own insecurities of being too dramatic, too self-centered, too much. With this in mind, watching them rehearse a usually funny scene in which Mary overhears two characters saying absolutely rotten things about her felt a bit uncomfortable.

Is this what their internal monologue sounds like? “I guess sometimes,” they said. “It’s played out to cartoonish proportions because that’s really funny to me. It’s also an exercise in, ‘Okay, what’s the worst possible thing you think people are saying about you?’”

Cole … could you try to go easy on yourself? “I will, I will.” They smiled politely. “And I still win in the end, right?” Smart answer.

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