The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 14, 2006
M. Stefan Strozier's new play The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln might perhaps better be titled "The Tragedy of John Wilkes Booth." For it's Booth's story, more than Lincoln's, that's really told here, and it's his belief in a lost cause at all costs that suggests the stuff of tragedy. The Great Emancipator, by contrast, gets relatively little stage time and his passions and/or demons remain relatively unexplored.
Strozier's script spans about a year and a half, from the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg (the play begins with the famous Address) to the killing of Booth following his assassination of Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. The Tragedy of Abraham Lincoln takes a panoramic view of the period, with scenes depicting Generals Grant and Lee at their headquarters in the field, Booth performing Julius Caesar with his brothers Junius and Edwin and plotting Lincoln's kidnapping and then murder with his fellow conspirators at Mary Surratt's tavern, and various other events. Historical personages such as Frederick Douglass and General Phil Sheridan get cameo roles, and near the end Lincoln's wife Mary makes an appearance as well.
Strozier's writing is often repetitive and pedestrian, unfortunately, so less ground gets covered than might otherwise be the case. What's interesting about his script is its emphasis on Lincoln's perception—by his enemies and by a variety of journalists and others—as a "tyrant": Booth and other characters cite his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, his contravention of the rules of war by ordering the execution of captured Rebel officers, and his censorship of the press, among other (true) occurrences. It occurred to me that Strozier might be trying to point up similarities between the current administration and Lincoln's (there's also a lot of discussion in the play about the illegal and immoral treatment of prisoners of war by the Union Army, echoing the Abu Ghraib affair). I wasn't sure which side Strozier wants us to take, however: is he elevating President Bush by comparing him to a man who is often cited as one of the U.S.'s greatest presidents, or is he providing perspective to help us understand why Booth did what he did?
The production, directed by Alan Kanevsky and featuring a cast of 20, is only fitfully effective. Kanevsky stages the episodic script straightforwardly but not particularly imaginatively, with longish interludes between scenes to rearrange chairs and tables into new configurations (there's no actual set to speak of). The actors' general lack of experience often tells on them, though a few create solid characterizations—notably Josh Stamell, who makes Booth the most complex and interesting man in the play, and Justin Ellis, who, as Lincoln, delivers the Gettysburg Address with real eloquence and gravity, permitting us to hear it as if for the first time.
The production is also undermined by what looks like inattention to detail—though the costumes (uncredited) are mostly appropriate to the period, General Grant drinks from a new Jack Daniels bottle with 20th century dates clearly printed on it and Mrs. Lincoln writes in what looks like a daytimer with a plastic ballpoint pen. In a space as small as the Where Eagles Dare Studio—about as tiny a venue as there is in Manhattan—errors like this are noticeable and distracting.