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Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Pippa Pearthree, Arnie Burton, Ben Roberts and Ted Koch.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Does Abraham Lincoln become a more worthy figure if it's determined after the fact (some 150 years, let's say) that he was gay? Does—or should—anything about his accomplishments and the way he's perceived change if we learn that his preferred partner was Joshua Speed and not Mary Todd? One would expect any chorus of tolerant Americans to answer with sentiments along the lines of those that Martin Luther King, Jr., once expressed: Much more important is the content of one's character than who one sleeps with, so let's not talk about it and just let Lincoln's immense achievements speak for themselves. With Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party, those Americans get their wish, if not in quite the way that either they or playwright Aaron Loeb might prefer.

The premise of Loeb's San Francisco–born play at the Acorn Theatre is that, in rural Illinois, a progressive schoolteacher co-opts a Christmas play to forward her own views on Lincoln as America's second, and greatest, gay president. (Buchanan was the first, don't you know.) This sets off the expected torrent of red-faced, Red State indignation that leads the teacher to suspension, dismissal, and a devastating trial. Can't you just imagine the fever-pitched scenes, as if ripped from Inherit the Wind, in which the merits of both the teacher's position and the issue itself are bandied about by the hick countryfolk and the oh-so-wise citydwellers?

You get half of that here, but it's the less invigorating half. Loeb isn't afraid to play the usual Blue State–versus–Red State loaded-dice game, recently demonstrated by Next Fall, in which everyone arguing against the teacher is either a bigot, politically motived, or both, and a centerpiece figure is himself in the closet for no determinable reason other than plot expediency. But in pursuing this lazy narrative shorthand, Loeb leaves out almost entirely the story's substance, and what ostensibly affects everything else: Was Lincoln, or wasn't he? Following the first scene, in which the teacher is literally booed off the stage during her students' play, no one much seems to care.

This wouldn't be a problem if the rest of the play were original, insightful, or even just interesting, with a less demanding structure. But, as the title suggests, this work is part realistic, part–avant garde, punctuated by the seven cast members dressed in long black coats, tall black hats, and thick black beards, engaging in fancy footwork ranging from tangos and waltzes to the Virginia Reel. Aside from wispy thematic notions of the intricate and intimate relationship between strange political bedfellows, the dancing (from choreographer Vince Pesce) neither illuminates or entertains, and appears to exist only to bestow extra weight (and length) on an evening otherwise too slight to sustain itself.

To mitigate against this, Loeb has structured the play to tell the same story from three angles—of the white Republican moralistic crusader who's very vocal against the teacher (Robert Hogan), and is plotting a run for governor; of the black Republican state senator, also running for governor, who signs on to defend the teacher (Stephanie Pope Caffey); and of the high-toned gay reporter from the New York Times who arrives in town to cover the story (Arnie Burton)—with one audience member (chosen more or less at random) deciding the order in which each act is presented. But the story is so slight, and so intent on dodging its elemental point, that this gimmick only makes the play look thinner than it already is.

Endless pages of dialogue are devoted to the meandering campaign maneuverings between the two candidates and the Republican operative (Ted Koch) who's overseeing them, and to the travails of the crusader's son with a "girlfriend in Canada" (Ben Roberts), to very little effect. What Loeb never allows to happen is for Lincoln's story, and the accusations made about it on both sides, to truly inform the modern characters' struggles. Lip service is paid to addressing the treatment of gay people as akin to the treatment of blacks before the Civil War, but because the idea is never developed in a thoughtful way it seems like anchorless preaching that no one in the audience probably needs to actually hear.

Despite a game cast—Burton, of The 39 Steps and The Temperamentals, is particularly enjoyable as the reporter; and Caffey brings a steely resolve to the senator (though grates in her secondary role as a Latina photojournalist)—and considered direction by Chris Smith, Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party, is ultimately yet another play that sacrifices a natural claim to uniqueness in order to make a well-worn political statement. But unlike the most recent example of this—Secrets of the Trade, which opened at Primary Stages last night—this play gains from its primary subject full rein to draw deep, provocative parallels between historic and contemporary American life that could tell us a great deal about how and with whom we live. That it chooses instead to squander that potential makes a play that could have tripped the light fantastic into a wilting dramatic wallflower.

Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including 2 intermissions
Through September 5
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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