First ladies have fluttered at the fringes of Washington theater this spring, and the titles stack up rather badly for their subjects. How else would you describe a pop-up cluster that began with April’s “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” continued with May’s “Laura Bush Killed a Guy” and now concludes with the new musical “Crazy Mary Lincoln”?
Each show of this peculiar inside-the-Beltway crop took root with emerging or seldom-producing small troupes. “Miz Martha Washington” marked the debut by the new Ally Theatre Company as a resident in Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, and it was a rude, frisky tone-setter.
The script by Philadelphia-based writer-actor James Ijames (pronounced I-ams) finds an aged, widowed Martha Washington panicking that her slaves are out to get her. The intuitively entertaining Ijames knows his history, and the lampoon scenes are packed with information as a fevered, hapless Martha finally starts asking questions about the system she’s been on top of all her life.
“It’s hard work, educatin’ people,” a slave grouses in one of Ijames’s characteristically winking lines. Ally Artistic Director Ty Hallmark’s bare-bones production (dominated by the practically helpless Martha in bed) was less than stylish and the acting was uneven, yet the cast generally kept up with Ijames’s challenging, mischievous tone.
The solo “Laura Bush Killed a Guy,” on the other hand, was mainly notable for Lisa Hodsoll’s silky, lightly twangy turn as the woman who always seemed brighter and more diplomatic than her husband. Hodsoll, praised in Celia Wren’s review for her “blazing presence and comic flair,” was a marvelously composed balance of rectitude and irreverence, talking directly to the audience in the cozy Caos on F gallery about cookie recipes, the bad-boy reputation of George W., and that fatal auto accident when Laura Welch was 17.
What Ian Allen’s snappy, deeply actable play does is cast shadows across this demure figure. She’s a good girl: she’s so proper and polite with us! But really, she’s not entirely nice — such wicked wisecracks about her mother-in-law! The contradictions pile up, and as imaginative biography it’s engaging (and tautly directed by John Vreeke in one of the intermittent productions from the Klunch).
The end seems targeted at a “Gatsby”-esque message about the reckless rich, a mark the play only grazes. Hodsoll’s charming, slightly naughty performance, though, was indeed bull’s eye.
So now to “Crazy Mary Lincoln,” the only one of these pieces to advocate for its subject. The asset here is the score by Jay Schwandt — songs with bouncy melodies that sweep you toward Stephen Foster territory while painting complicated psychological portraits a la Stephen Sondheim.
That’s the ambition, anyway. The trouble with this new material, developed and premiered by the emerging Pallas Theatre Collective at the Logan Fringe Arts Space’s Trinidad Theatre, is its blurry view. Is Mary crazy? Doesn’t seem so, though she had ample cause for grief (so many family deaths), had a dubious fashion sense, and spent well beyond her means.
But the question of madness isn’t even intriguingly posed given how villainous everyone else is, from the trio of bill collectors sneering “Madame, You Must Pay” (in waltz time) to even Mary’s son, Robert, as he institutionalizes her. Schwandt sometimes suggests lush musical possibilities as he accompanies the big cast on an electronic keyboard, and at other moments he plays dark carnival tunes underlining the general absurdity. His book with lyricist Jan Levy Tranen is persistently, disappointingly melodramatic.
Unlike “Miz Martha Washington” and “Laura Bush Killed a Guy,” “Crazy Mary Lincoln” doesn’t much reflect on its president’s policies, and it is utterly earnest. The music is serious — Melynda Burdette’s Mary has a bravura aria to scale in the second act — and the show likes her. “Liking” is nice for polls, but in theater that bland standard makes “Mary” the least pointed, least interesting of this wildflower bunch.
Crazy Mary Lincoln Music and book by Jay Schwandt, lyrics and book by Jan Levy Tranen. Directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum. Choreography, Madeleine Koon; costumes, Maria Bissex; lights, Jason Aufdem-Brinke. About two hours. Through June 18 at Logan Fringe Arts Space, 1358 Florida Ave. NE. Tickets $25. Call or visit pallastheater.org.