The quality of American political discourse bottomed out:
A) In 2000, when the presidential election was left hanging for weeks by paper-thin chads on Florida ballots.
B) With the invention of Twitter.
C) When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton.
The widely lamented awfulness of right now is why the Dupont Circle troupe Keegan Theatre has brought back “Lincolnesque,” a dark fantasy about a noble speechwriter who breaks down and starts channeling Abraham Lincoln’s loftiest prose. It opened Tuesday in a production that reunites three of the original four cast members; Keegan first staged it in 2009, when Barack Obama — another lanky senator from Illinois — reached the White House thanks in part to his uplifting rhetoric.
But D.C. playwright John Strand had written the play a few years earlier, and he can’t put his finger on exactly why. There was no “brilliant triggering event,” Strand said by phone earlier this week. “The whole environment of Capitol Hill and the machinery of legislation and politics has a tendency to drive people mad.”
That’s not as hyperbolic as it might sound. The “Lincolnesque” character of Francis is based on people Strand has known and heard of crumbling under the stress of working on Capitol Hill.
“The ill effects are very real,” says Strand, whose plays include a Reagan-era adaptation of Moliere’s “The Miser” and “Three Nights in Tehran,” a farce about Oliver North and the Iran-contra affair. “The work is too hard. The stakes are enormous.”
Strand is better known now for “The Originalist,” the drama of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia that debuted at Arena Stage in 2015 and has been on its feet pretty steadily since then. (The production, directed by Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith and starring Edward Gero as Scalia, just wrapped up an off-Broadway run.) Strand uses Scalia as a lightning rod to explore harsh partisanship and what he calls “the danger of a firmly closed mind.” He has felt it himself as some producers have rejected the notion of a Scalia play out of hand.
“Thank you,” he says, “for confirming the problem.”
With “Lincolnesque,” the Keegan audience gets no sense that the seemingly of-the-moment show is over a decade old. Strand has updated it lightly, but in no way has it become a Donald Trump play. The plot focuses on a midterm reelection campaign with the bland candidate struggling to hold his ground. Saving the day: Lincolnesque flourishes in the campaign speeches. The upbeat recipe is all ideals, no attacks.
Returning from the 2009 cast are Michael Innocenti as the anxious speechwriter Leo, Susan Marie Rhea as a Type-A campaign manager, and Stan Shulman, doubling as a local political boss and a homeless man, all bringing an aura of inside baseball to their performances. Brandon McCoy, tall and lean, is now Francis, and the gun-shy McCoy wears the persona of Lincoln like a flak jacket to protect against the heavy political fire that drove Francis around the bend. The drama’s contours feel sharper and more dangerous now; when Rhea’s campaign manager character tells Leo she knows a bit about mental illness, the comedy turns dead serious.
The show unfolds amid monumental columns wrapped in newspaper — a scandal eventually careens into the story — though director Colin Smith’s workmanlike production doesn’t zip along as it might. It’s two hours with an intermission, and it feels like it wants to be an “Originalist”-style 80 or 90 crisp minutes.
Still, several of the winding one-on-one dialogues are gripping. McCoy’s gentle, earnest Francis evokes Chance the gardener in “Being There” as he counsels Shulman’s boss character on marriage, with political overtones in the idea that houses divided against themselves cannot stand. Even better is the hardball played by Rhea’s campaign manager as she tears down Lincoln for the flaws that we don’t foreground in history but that Francis knows perfectly well.
In other words — and in this and “The Originalist,” Strand sharpens your ear for other words — we’ve always been a mess of base impulses and better angels. The plot needs another turn of the wrench for “Lincolnesque” to reach its fighting peak, but the scrutiny of tactics, speech and chronic American discontent means the play is going to feel timely for quite a while.
Lincolnesque by John Strand. Directed by Colin Smith. Set design, Matthew J. Keenan; costumes, Kiana Vincenty; lights, Megan Thrift; sound/projection design, Veronica J. Lancaster. Through Oct. 14 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. $46. 202-265-3767 or keegantheatre.com