A tall, thin man (Brandon McCoy) stands among the columns wearing an austere black frock coat and vest, reciting Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech with great earnestness. He is soon interrupted by another man, Leo (Michael Innocenti), his younger brother, who demands he come home before neighbors call the police. The thin man is neither Lincoln nor a historical reenactor, but a once brilliant political strategist named Francis who, after a psychotic episode, now believes himself to be the 16th president of the United States.
As a condition of Francis’ release from Saint Elizabeths Hospital, Leo has been made his brother’s keeper, but Leo’s problems extend beyond caring for a delusional sibling: He’s also a speechwriter for Mike Carpenter, a mediocre congressional representative in danger of losing to a challenger. As the incumbent’s new chief of staff, Carla (Keegan Artistic Director Susan Marie Rhea) makes clear, if their guy loses the election, both will be unemployed. Francis, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with a homeless man (Stan Shulman) whom he addresses as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. While the Secretary may or may not be a former GS-14 or 15 and may or may not have held secrets, he is prone to outbursts about Lockheed Martin and MSG.
Soon, Francis is helping Leo write his speeches, updating the rhetorical tropes of “the Shakespeare of American politics.” Political commentators describe the congressman’s new style—one that calls upon the better angels rather than negative attacks – as “Lincolnesque.” Poll numbers improve. The cynical Carla discovers something attractive about the nebbishy speechwriter.
Playwright John Strand has crafted a well structured comedy about the conflict between democratic ideals that, until recently, even the worst practitioners paid lip service to, and the situational ethics that even the most high-minded must indulge in if they are to accomplish anything. While some of the words are borrowed—though as Leo notes, “copyright unencumbered”—Strand also has a strong sense of comic dialogue. Most importantly, Strand’s formal sense gives the comic set-up a tragic subtext: the self-inflicted wounds of ambition, and the guilty feelings associated with caring for a loved one with a mental illness.
The Keegan previously staged Lincolnesque in 2009 and company stalwarts Innocenti, Rhea, and Shulman seem to relish revisiting their roles in this new Colin Smith-directed production. Innocenti, as Leo, the real protagonist of the story, gracefully ping-pongs between the idealism that drives him and the cynicism that constrains him, all while exuding a vulnerability. Rhea plays Carla as Leo’s opposite: New to Washington, she comes from the world of business, and while winning takes priority in her mind, there is a level of ruthlessness that even she, with her own loose ethics (which Rhea plays with great effect), seems reluctant to indulge in. Shulman plays the Secretary of War with a focused mania as he flits between his own paranoia and indulging Francis’ grandiose visions. He also takes on the role of Harold Daly, a well heeled political operative backing Carpenter’s challenger who also happens to own the building whose floors and toilets Francis cleans. As Francis, McCoy brings a charismatic gravitas to the delusions of grandeur while allowing the latent political strategist to lurk underneath.
Set designer Matthew J. Keenan provides a brilliantly executed concept: The neoclassical columns, painted to evoke the flows of marble, are angled off from the vertical; lines on the floor don’t run perpendicular to one another, and laminated newspapers lie just below the false marble wash. Washington’s news obsession is never out of sight or mind. Sound designer Veronica J. Lancaster scores the evening with an intriguing mix of electronically processed percussive effects.
Despite the setting and central themes, Lincolnesque is a remarkably apolitical and non-partisan play. Though Leo briefly discusses a concern regarding gerrymandering, the only policy issues discussed are the Secretary of War’s paranoid delusions and Lincoln’s conduct as Commander-In-Chief. It seems just a little too safe that martial law in Maryland and a proposed mass repatriation of African-Americans to Africa are criticized a century-and-a-half later without an eye to any of today’s atrocities, but Washingtonian playgoers do love to be entertained by stories about the local industry. For that purpose, Lincolnesque is a skillful entertainment.
To Oct. 14 at 1742 Church St. NW. $40–$50. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.