What if the spirit of Abraham Lincoln were unleashed in the cynical, money-grubbing, poll-watching, every-man-for-himself world of Washington politics? That’s the intriguing, if hardly novel, question at the heart of “Lincolnesque,” John Strand’s mildly absorbing, deeply cynical political drama preeming at the Old Globe.
Set in the recognizable now, though without any overt references to current events, the play offers the unpalatable but thus far irrefutable suggestion that the only Lincolnesque figure likely to haunt the hallowed buildings on the Mall today is a flat-out lunatic, who is nonetheless saner than the suits who rule the land with faint pretense of democratic principle and barely disguised self-interest.
That madman who speaks truth is Francis (T. Ryder Smith), a former boy wonder of Washington politics who snapped under the strain and landed in an asylum. Now, thanks to his brother and keeper, Leo (Leo Marks), a political speechwriter for a sorry excuse of a congressman, he’s back on the outside.
He spends his nights polishing floors in the corridors of power and his days spewing fragments of moving, provocative speeches from the Great Emancipator.
Whether Francis actually believes he’s the spirit of Lincoln reincarnate is left tantalizingly unclear. He’s lucid enough to write riveting, fortune-shifting speeches for Leo’s congressman, but nuts enough to hold cabinet meetings about the slave rebellion with his Secretary of War (the shape-shifting James Sutorius, also wonderful as the needy, greedy king-maker Daly). More potently, Francis’ relationships with his nebbishy kid brother and the sexy, ball-busting power broker (Magaly Colimon) who fuels Leo’s ambition suggest the utter lunacy of the “politics as usual” that governs our world.
Strong acting by all and tight, fluid direction by Joe Calarco keep the proceedings buoyant, even when Strand’s script tends to the obvious and the pedantic. (Is there a cliché more overworked than the mad seer? Is there anyone left out there who doesn’t despair of the yawning chasm between our problems and our politics?)
Michael Fagin’s austere set of miniature icons of Washington architecture keeps the actors towering over the institutions — ironic commentary, no doubt, on the smallness of today’s political giants. Chris Rynne’s hazy lighting design reminds us of the fog of war that envelops the current moment, and also suggests the gloomy cynicism that prevails, onstage and off.
Strand gives us two endings, the first falsely happy, imbued with wistful, mock-idealistic notions of family and community, and the second emphatically dark: even cynicism has yielded to a stark, inescapable realism. This downbeat coda offers a sharp, disturbing contrast with real life in Washington, where, Strand suggests, the grimmest realities are inevitably greeted with political calculation and unrelenting cynicism. Likable but only intermittently provocative, Strand’s play needs more of this unexpected pungency to provide a compelling, and not merely pleasing, evening of theater.