It Takes a Lot of Work for Cole Escola to Be This Absurd

Emilio Madrid

Indeed, Escola purposely did absolutely no research about her life beforehand. “I’ve wanted to have the same third grade knowledge of the Lincolns that the audience probably has,” they said. So in Escola’s telling, Mary is an aspiring cabaret star desperate for the stage, equal parts Lucy Ricardo of I Love Lucy, Roxie Hart from Chicago, Bette Davis as Julie Marsden in Jezebel, and Karen in the original Will & Grace.

Escola first had the idea for the play in 2009, and has retained the email they sent to themselves at that time reminding them of it. They bounced it around to friends, but realized if they wanted the play to exist, nobody else could bring it into the world except them. “I would tell people the idea, sort of waiting for someone to give me permission to write it, or like, a lightning bolt of encouragement to write it,” they said. But hearing ‘that sounds great, you should do it!’ wasn’t enough. “It was this weak, precious little seedling I was going around to people being like, “will you grow this for me? Will you grow this for me? And no one could do it.” But when the pandemic arrived, they became their own captive audience. What also became true was that their career in sketch, cabaret, television, and more had been leading to this the whole time.

By Escola’s own description, many parts of Mary’s character are self-criticisms they’ve ripped open, explored, and put in a hoop skirt. “I see myself as an obnoxious, attention-seeking, self-loathing, just all-around nuisance. And I really relate to that in my version of Mary Todd,” they said. “In a way, it’s me playing out my worst beliefs about myself, and celebrating them as well.” It’s partly how they come up with all of their characters: “There’s some part of me that I’m ashamed of, or embarrassed about, or curious about, and then I want to amplify it times a million,” they said.

Told with Escola’s signature absurdism, Mary is a spoiled, bratty, delusional, inane mean girl — “I’m a rather well-known niche cabaret legend,” she self-righteously spouts — and one we also can’t help but adore. She’s played with full seriousness, as are a closeted Abraham Lincoln, played unflinchingly by Conrad Ricamora of Fire Island; the pious yet put-upon ice cream enthusiast Louise, played by Bianca Leigh; and Mary’s teacher, the classic leading man but with a twist, played by James Scully, also of Fire Island. But even with all of the play’s absurdity, what’s happening onstage is by no means an accident or haphazard collection of slapstick. On the contrary, as laughter consistently explodes from patrons in the theater’s red velvet seats, it’s actually the result of extreme focus and intentionality.

“I know that there’s a lot of love and talk about how hilarious and absurd and wacky the play is and Cole is, but that is possible because of what a hard worker they are and how detailed they are, and how seriously they take the work,” said “Oh, Mary!” director Sam Pinkleton. He remembers Escola cutting, changing, and rearranging lines and lines of dialogue throughout the two-week rehearsal process, including a lengthy monologue filled with brilliant jokes, so much so he recalls only two pages didn’t see change at all. If it didn’t act in service of the story, it went out.

Even in Pinkleton’s career of dizzying heights — a Tony nomination among them, not to mention work with Pulitzer Prize winners and Broadway artists of great renown — his work with Escola was unusual, he said, in the best way. “I’ve actually never worked with a playwright who’s so exacting,” Pinkleton said. “It felt like Cole is doing Arthur Miller drag. But it’s real, it’s serious… it’s just not what I think many people would expect, given what the show feels like and how hilarious and ridiculous Cole is.”

Pinkleton is quick to share there’s more to the show than spoof or parody or some kind of extended sketch. “I think that there’s real heart there. And there’s real muscular storytelling there. Cole is a craftsperson. They are, of course, a visionary comedian… [but] I do think the play has guts and I think the actors have guts and that comes from how exacting Cole is.”