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Abraham Lincoln. Eva Perón. The two have little in common, except maybe that casting Madonna to play either one would be a seriously bad idea. Yet both were larger-than-life political figures who remain, if judged on the evidence presented in two local productions, considerably larger than death, as well. Lincoln was killed by an assassin, Perón by cancer. But what is interesting, these works argue, is what happened to them after that; both Keegan’s Lincolnesque and GALA’s Mummy in the Closet take as their subject the kind of secular beatification we force our dead political leaders to undergo.
In local playwright John Strand’s 2006 play, the spirit of the Great Emancipator may or may not come to inhabit the body of Francis, a mentally unstable D.C. political operative played by Peter Finnegan.
Say this much: director Mark Rhea coaxes from each of his actors a performance you could bounce a quarter off of. Finnegan in particular does subtle, grounded work: He carries himself tentatively, avoiding eye contact with strangers. On those rare occasions when Francis manages to convince someone else to humor his delusions, the relief that washes over Finnegan’s features transforms both character and play. The script also permits us brief glimpses of Francis’ potentially dangerous side—which is good and necessary, if we’re to understand what’s at stake here—and Finnegan nails those moments of rage as well.
Susan Marie Rhea imbues Carla, a shrewd chief of staff, with crisp comic timing that’s put to best use during a scene in which she and Francis’ brother Leo (the fine, funny Michael Innocenti) struggle to write a speech together. It’s an actor’s playhouse—the two trade rhetorical phrases, building sentences that surge forward and double back before going completely off the rails; it’s quick and clever and everything you wish the rest of Lincolnesque would be.
Strand has plenty to say about D.C. political life, but his point of view just isn’t pointed enough: “[Francis] thinks he’s the reincarnation of a great historical figure!” an exasperated Leo exclaims, late in the play. Carla’s response: “Leo, you just described half of Washington!”
That joke’s about as fresh and incisive as Lincolnesque gets—which, let’s just note, is neither and is constructed in a manner so redolent of the sitcom as to make you peer offstage for Chandler Bing. But if we note that, we have to note something else: On the night I saw it, that joke earned a big—OK, a huge—laugh.
It’s Strand’s ending, not his lack of bite, that will send you out of the theater vaguely unsatisfied. I’ll be careful here, but: Over the course of the evening, several small but palpable lapses in the play’s narrative logic occur—little more than hiccups, really, but their number makes them difficult to ignore. With a wave of a dramaturgical wand, Lincolnesque’s final scene effectively obviates these lapses. That’s a neat trick, yes, but it’s still a trick, and the abiding problem is that it feels like one.