A Political Voice With An Accent of Honest Abe
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Picture this: A politician wins the heart of a cynical electorate thanks to gorgeous, unusually inspiring speeches. The candidate disdains convention with his common appeal and unpretentious appearance (he sports the open-collar look). This rising political star also has a deep connection to Illinois.
That is John Strand's political comedy "Lincolnesque," and it could not possibly be about Barack Obama, for it premiered in 2006. The mischievous play, getting a nicely acted local debut with the Keegan Theatre, is the standard fantasy about a political maverick, the kind of saviorlike straight shooter willing to buck the usual self-promotion and appeal to our better selves.
Strand, a longtime Washingtonian, seems to think an honest politician is about as plausible as the tooth fairy, so his plot hinges on a gifted speechwriter named Francis who, um, thinks he's Abraham Lincoln. Seems the pressure of high-stakes politics drove Francis to a bit of a breakdown, and his post-crackup delusions are often delightfully funny as he reacts to strategy sessions with droll one-liners that are indeed Lincolnesque.
This dance with insanity requires a bit of finesse in performance, and under Mark A. Rhea's direction, Peter Finnegan easily avoids the trap of a ponderous Lincoln impersonation. Instead, Finnegan offers hints here and there, mainly in a greatcoat and a little snippet of a beard. Finnegan then acts sweetly baffled, as his Francis channels sage advice from the thick of the 19th century.
Michael Innocenti offers a nifty comic turn, too, as Francis's pragmatic brother, Leo, a nebbishy speechwriter who loves political ideals and knows that they seldom pay off. As Francis secretly pens the speeches that send Leo's boss (an unseen but much-described congressman of no particular distinction) rocketing in the polls, the siblings duel about everything from strategy to medications. Both performances are appealing yet savvy as Strand -- whose works include a giddy lampoon of Oliver North's escapades in "Three Nights in Tehran" -- takes political potshots that are often more angry than they sound.
The production in the small Theatre on the Run is of the shoestring variety, with stagehands rearranging a few faux-marble columns between scenes. The show doesn't have nearly the polish that's been lavished on Strand scripts at bigger venues around town, but then, the play itself is hardly Strand's most elaborate. The remaining dramatic characters are few and surprisingly rote, with Susan Marie Rhea ably playing a hard-boiled campaign manager and Stan Shulman persuasively doubling as a derelict and a political bigwig, and as the plot creates its heroes and villains, it drifts toward the predictable.
In this incarnation, at least, the not entirely good-natured "Lincolnesque" doesn't really draw blood. Maybe it's the absence of any dark undercurrent in Mark Rhea's straightforward production, or maybe it's the continuing Obama glow. Nonetheless, the show moves quickly and knowledgeably enough to easily entertain a plugged-in Beltway crowd, something that theater in the nation's capital still doesn't do nearly often enough.
Lincolnesque, by John Strand. Directed by Mark A. Rhea. Set, light and sound design, Rich Montgomery; costumes, Erin Nugent. About 2 hours 20 minutes.