When you read the words "Abe Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party," what phrases immediately come to mind?
Although the phrases “political relevance” and “moral complexity” may not be the first things brought to mind by the title “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party,” Aaron Loeb’s gay-rights comedy turns out to be improbably universal as it navigates the no-man’s land between we-should-nuke-the-heartland and we-must-tolerate-the-intolerant extremes of liberalism. Though the plot and staging are less balanced than the characters — who are not wholly evil or wholly virtuous — the production’s overwhelming good humor more than atones for its shortcomings.
“What could be more American than that: being pissed off at other people for their stupid ideas?” asks one of seven Abraham Lincolns near the beginning of “Party.” True, it’s a great time to be angry, but Loeb is not about to let anyone stay angry if he can help it. His first gambit is a very funny Christmas pageant starring the Founding Fathers, including a Thomas Jefferson who is on Santa’s naughty list for owning slaves, and a controversially gay Abraham Lincoln.
The teacher who staged that pageant undergoes a Scopes-like trial, which is seen from three different angles, all of them pretty revealing. But, this being a democracy, an audience representative gets to decide which among the three angles, espoused by different characters — smarmy reporter Anton (a wonderfully oily Arnie Burton), fiery prosecutor Regina (Stephanie Pope Caffey) or conservative politico Tom (Robert Hogan) — gets to go first.
Anton, for instance, is painfully unscrupulous, seducing Tom’s closeted son Jerry (Ben Roberts) one moment and selling his dad up the river the next. Tom’s a mean-spirited bigot, but he loves his boy and it’s sad to see a man who prides himself on being principled become a shadow of his former self. Loeb’s twists and turns aren’t without some plausibility problems — the legal proceedings at the center of the play are pretty much one long mistrial, and the political machinations between fixer Lloyd (Ted Koch) and aide Tina (a very good Lisa Birnbaum) are nearly impenetrable.
But ultimately, the plot twists are beside the point. The whole thing seems to be a setup for a smart series of intellectual fistfights between folks like Regina and Anton — a conservative straight black woman and a liberal white gay man who just can’t stand each other. These exchanges actually sound like two people arguing, not like a playwright venting his frustrations at people he’d like to tell off.
Chris Smith’s direction has all the benefits and all the drawbacks you’d expect of a show that comes from the New York Fringe Festival. It looks like the actors are having a blast, particularly in the dance-off interludes, but the show as a whole has a lot of air in it and could probably shrink by about 20 minutes without losing any lines of dialogue. Bill English’s Warhol-esque set is a lot of fun to look at; Vince Pesce’s choreography is serviceable.
With the playwright’s insistence that his aud not write off everyone with a bigoted opinion as hopelessly evil, Loeb runs the very real risk of seeing some of the anger he’s trying to address vented in his direction. (The improbable ending of “Party,” in which everyone learns to tolerate everyone else, will exacerbate this.) Here’s hoping he’s not cowed or goaded by it — it will be good to see what he turns his attention to next.