Mr. Sick Goes to Washington

The first words heard in Lincolnesque are those of Abraham Lincoln. They are lyrical, lofty, and moving, spoken by a tall, bearded man in a long black coat, his voice at once inspiring and reassuring, if only a little off. Maybe a lot off: He is in fact a madman who merely thinks he is Lincoln. He is about to be arrested for disturbing the peace — not for the first time — around midnight in Washington, D.C. His brother will save him first from jail and then from being committed again to the infamous insane ward at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, just across the Potomac.

That's just the setup, and what follows is rich. Socially relevant without ever becoming preachy, clever enough to pass for cynical but also so subtly moving that its emotional payoff comes as a surprise, John Strand's new comedy is a political fantasy, a notoriously difficult genre, and it works. Ricky J. Martinez's production at his New Theatre in the Gables re-creates the hall of mirrors that is politics in our nation's capital with a kind eye for human foibles and an unerring sagacity. The cast helps, of course. Israel Garcia, Clint Hooper, Bill Schwartz, and Stacy Schwartz make a foursome that packs a punch, and every one of them seems intent on keeping his or her fragile grip on reality. Washington, the playwright notes in his program, "is a funnier place than most of the people who work there realize. The contradiction, however, is this: The joke too often is on us."

Lincolnesque is not exactly a hard-edged political comedy. It's more Capra than Brecht, but it does seem to limn the curiously fine line between madness and what passes for sanity in official Washington. In the capital of a nation where people routinely vote against their own economic and social interests, ruled by politicians who rail against their critics, it doesn't take much to see that maybe it's the mad who have a point.

The action is contemporary, the place unmistakable. Robert Eastman-Mullins's elegant set is postmodern in the best sense, treating neoclassical Washington architecture as so much found art. The Lincoln Memorial becomes a bench stage left, backed by the silhouette of the Capitol. The props are minimal. Like the city it represents, the set of Lincolnesque comes off on first impression as cold and refined, yet undeniably seductive. With iconic capital landmarks reduced to the size of toys all over the stage, it's apparent that what really matters are the people who play with them.

Mad Francis, embodied with eerie equanimity by Hooper, may or may not believe he really is Honest Abe. Perhaps it doesn't matter. It seems he did have a major and very public breakdown, has fallen from his position as "the king of Capitol Hill staffers," and is now seriously medicated and under constant threat of being sent back to the loony bin — though he may have hit on a sensible solution to his pharmaceutical haze: "I donate my pills to the needy." His younger brother Leo, a speechwriter overcoming a speech impediment with heartbreaking precision, works for a dull congressional candidate who would have a tough time proving he has a brain at all. Perhaps a few great speeches, however, could turn around the upcoming election results. Israel Garcia's way with Leo is deliciously ambivalent, morally and physically. He is a loving brother concerned for his family's future and for the job they depend on, and he needs little encouragement to stop at nothing to succeed at that job. Enter Carla, a larger-than-life marketing bitch-from-hell played with frightening relish by Stacy Schwartz, and the stage is set for a mad idea that might just work. Why not have Abe Lincoln write the congressman's speeches? Meanwhile, a notorious behind-the-scenes Washington kingmaker and a pathetic homeless man with a past, both played with dazzling versatility by Bill Schwartz, are on the fringes of Francis and Leo's story, threatening to make it theirs.

Anything more would require a spoiler alert, but be warned that Strand provides two alternate endings, two alternate futures for Leo and Francis. The play flirts with a serious debate on madness as a social construct, as a defense against madness and cruelty on a larger scale, as a way to adapt. But it remains a comedy, albeit a deadly serious one. Lincolnesque succeeds in bringing surprising new accents to Lincoln's words. Perhaps Strand is right and a mind divided against itself may not necessarily fall, or at least not fall apart the way you might expect. Perhaps a politician who dares to lead with malice toward none and with charity for all is decidedly not what the country will get, even if we can go on hoping. Perhaps life in Washington really is crazy. Lincolnesque offers no easy answers. It simply lets us laugh as we begin to grapple with some truly horrifying questions.

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