Larry Gold’s play, “The Sons of Lincoln,” is a bizarre conglomeration of screechy racist rants and small-scale power struggles. Meandering through the first act in narrative fits and starts, the production at the Lillian Theater gathers enough steam in its second half to become theatrically exciting, not so much because of the play, which remains undisciplined if occasionally provocative, but due to Valerie Landsburg’s vibrant direction of an exciting, explosive cast.
The title character of Lincoln, played by Bill Fagerbakke (“Coach”), is a race-baiting school administrator in Glendale who plans to launch a congressional campaign with the help of his crew of motley youths, called “The Corporate Coalition of True White America.”
This group consists of the inarticulate Skull (Jonathan Avildsen), nerdy and needy Floss (Chad Allen), buff and dim-witted actor Dante (Lawrence Monoson), and, the newest recruit, college-educated Pinch (Tony Colitti), whose clean-cut look and mixed racial heritage make him Lincoln’s newest favorite while inspiring exceeding jealousy in the others.
Aside from some confusingly staged flashbacks that show us some of Lincoln’s first meetings with these fatherless disciples, the first act does little more than set up the group’s dynamics. Hanging out at the group’s clubhouse-like basement, each member attempts to gain some standing in relation to the others, either through a manipulation of the fraternity’s rules, by threatening to inform Lincoln of another’s disloyal words, or by picking up a baseball bat and seeming willing to bash in someone’s head.
Lincoln has arranged for a television talkshow producer to put his group of followers on the air, certain that this will draw him significant votes. (He also seems to have some underhanded plans, never clearly delineated, that will fool the voters into thinking he’s a unifying force rather than a divisive one.) The producer, J.J. Stiggs (Joel Polis), is thrilled with the entertainment value these guests will provide and comes to prepare them for the show.
The second act is mostly a kind of rehearsal for the TV appearance, and the four “sons of Lincoln” jockey for position as the most prominent spokesman for their cause. Their primary foil is Calvin Love (Glynn Turman), a black former actor whom Stiggs is trying to set up as a talkshow host. Stiggs and Love — the Jewish producer and the minority actor — have a power struggle all their own, one which Gold seems to have a stronger handle on and that comes across with great force and specificity. Their issues are perhaps more accessible, and therefore more disturbing, than the more obvious bigotry of the younger characters.
Despite a fully realized set from Douglas Smith, the play is not genuinely realistic, and Landsburg keeps it moving at a rapid-fire pace that smoothes over many of the play’s clunkier transitions. Above all, though, what makes this unpleasant material watchable is the acting, which has a constant energy reminiscent of the style of Chicago’s Steppenwolf company.
Allen and Avildsen are excellent as Floss and Skull, the two close friends who are in this clearly for the kinship more than anything else. Lawrence Monoson gets to deliver a very amusing, long monologue and brings some much-needed humor to the character’s naivete. These three actors often bound about the stage in “controlled chaos,” as Stiggs refers to the talk show business. Sometimes the physicality can be distracting and on occasion the actors can seem to be working a bit too hard, but their energy also gives the play its powder-keg theatricality.
As the more proper Pinch, Colitti doesn’t get to show off quite as much, but he portrays very effectively that his character’s an outsider among outsiders. Fagerbakke is physically imposing — he towers over the others — but he doesn’t project enough seductive charisma for the role. Polis is highly convincing as the scavenging producer who does what he can to justify his bottom-feeding.
Best of all, though, is Turman, who provides just the right note of bemusement to make his dialogue with the ignorant youths compelling instead of purely pedantic. It’s a performance of searing intelligence, and this would be a far better play were it re-shaped to put Turman’s Calvin Love at the center.