Separating a theater company’s production from the playwright’s script is crucial when evaluating a performance. After all, an engaging full production can do the old razzle-dazzle to cover a script’s flaws. And that is what the Keegan Theatre accomplishes with its amiable take on John Strand’s underwhelming script for Lincolnesque (2008).
Under the agreeable direction of Colin Smith and fine performances from his cast, what I most took away from the Keegan production of Lincolnesque, is that Strand’s script is a mildly interesting but unabsorbing darkish fantasy masquerading as some sort of intriguing political thriller about the “deep state,” punctuated with plenty of comic overtones. Viewers in 2018 may also be baffled by some of the play’s gender role outlooks.
So what is Lincolnesque about?
It takes place in Washington, D.C. in the present time. Leo (a harried, agitated Michael Innocenti) is an older white male Capitol Hill speechwriter struggling to help the Congressman he works for get re-elected. That seems a long shot. The bland, unseen Congressman is down in the polls. An unwired Leo doesn’t think his boss is very smart either. Leo turns to his brother Francis (Brandon McCoy, who flattens his voice and affect into a contemporary Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart “Everyman” even with some outbursts here and there) for help. Why? Well, Francis is a former wunderkind Washington political strategist and speechwriter, who had some personal issues when it came to his interpersonal skills. Now, Francis is a psychiatric outpatient after a meltdown. He is now confident he is the iconic President Abraham Lincoln.
Into Leo’s life marches a new appointee named Carla (a marvelously driven Susan Marie Rhea) hired by the Congressman to shake up his lagging campaign. Can she work miracles for the Congressman? Will she and Leo work together well? And can Francis come around somehow to be helpful for his brother Leo and Carla? Well, let’s not give away too much about playwright Strand’s approach, including two characters played with potency by a delightful Stan Shulman. One known as the Secretary of War, a sad sack of a GS-15 driven into his own state of despair by politicals who think him dangerous. Shulman’s other character is Harold, a man of money who does not ever want to be taken lightly or ever lose.
What most struck me about Keegan’s Lincolnesque were the voices of actors Rhea and Shulman. When they appeared on stage; when they spoke, I was instantly drawn into the production. Rhea especially became my doorway and my glue stick into Lincolnesque. As Carla, Rhea is a marvel of posture, strength, and power. But it is her voice in the production that woke me. Rhea’s voice is all the wonders of a Lauren Bacall-esque voice. With her timbre, Rhea gives each phrase, each word, each consonant, deep resonance well beyond how they appear on a page.
Of interest, both Rhea and Shulman were in a previous production of Lincolnesque that Keegan produced in 2009.
All-in-all, I was left not intrigued by playwright Strand’s take on the D.C. world of schemers and political gamesmanship. Further, Strand provides two endings; one wistfully happy, the other darkly forbidding. The two endings seem a cheap trick or a lazy way to not have a real position. Or worse, to hide a viewpoint for fear of angering viewers.
For me, the script needs more sharp edges to make a go at serious themes for this inside the Beltway writer. The Keegan production was a fine one. But the Lincolnesque script was a likable smudge for my tastes even taken as a fantasy.
But, damn, a play about an all-powerful “deep state” either of career bureaucrats (like Leo) or rich big funders (like Harold), well now that is something to write a play about. Any takers?
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Note: Read Ramona Harper’s review for another take on Lincolnesque here.