Abraham Lincoln's Big, Gay Dance Party
nytheatre.com review by Montserrat Mendez
August 7, 2010
Aaron Loeb is one crafty playwright; his Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party is not what it appears to be at all. From title to curtain, the play, a Fringe hit now having an off-Broadway run, defies expectations at every single turn.
And that's because Loeb has crafted a comedy that is also a political thriller, a social drama that uses the conventions of musical theatre, and a tear-jerking father-and-son story put inside an episode of The Practice. There is a lot going on and it's to Loeb's credit that he manages to quickstep through all of this quite beautifully.
Excuse the dance metaphor, but it's completely apt because the play doesn't only include dance numbers, but it is about the dance in general, the dance of life, the dance of politics, and the dance of history as it waltzes away from our grasp. The Rashomon-like structure of the play itself—three acts, set up so that the audience decides which section they will see first—is created in a way that each act dances independently of the other, and so depending on which way you see the play, you get information revealed to you in vastly creative and interesting ways.
The Dance Party kicks off when a fourth-grade teacher in Menard, Illinois (Abraham Lincoln's hometown) stages a pageant, "Christmas with the Presidents," and calls into question the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln. This causes a fiery uproar and she is put on trial. Immediately, the trial attracts the attention of three people: the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anton, who is out for revenge against a bigoted politician, Tom, who he feels wronged a generation of gay men in the '80s, and Regina, who recognizes that Tom is using the issue to stir interest in his once dead political career, and is dashing her hopes of becoming the first black Republican female governor of Illinois.
There is a lot going on. And yet, through all the laughs, and all the jokes, there's also a very sad play in here; mostly because every single character in the play has to come to terms or never realizes that they are in fact dancing alone. But there is also a message in the play that perhaps the loneliness we feel would vanish if we stopped trying to dictate who others should be, and how they should live, or who they should love, and just find joy in the very brief dance we are born to before we fade into the pages of history.
It is a marvelous play which arrives (on the heels of the Proposition 8 overturn) at just the right time, and is directed by Chris Smith with precision and care. What I think he has done extremely well is never to lose the throughline of the story—he has found a way to keep it truthful, funny, and touching, while making us believe we are watching a play, about a play, within a play. Believe it or not, this is not a musical, however, as promised there is enough dancing to qualify it as a Dance Party and choreographer Vince Pesce keeps it uncomplicated yet perky using a familiar dance vocabulary to transition the scenes and keep the proceedings moving along at a lively pace.
There is no weak link in the uniformly talented cast of seven actors who play 17 different characters, and who all play Abe Lincoln at one point or another. This is a dream cast; I do however have to give kudos to Robert Hogan and Ben Roberts. I truly responded to the father-and-son aspect of the play, and it was mostly due to these two incredibly grounded actors. Hogan plays Tom, the ex-politician plotting his way back to power. He is close-minded, bigoted, and trades on fear to get what he wants. He's also, as played by Hogan, an incredibly human, loving, and protective family man who truly believes he is doing what's best. Roberts, in the role of Jerry, walks a tightrope of a role, a son who loves his father while fearing all his father stands for. This could have been a cliche role, but I give it to Loeb and Foster for creating a young man who is hopeful for a better future, while still being afraid to take the first steps towards it.
And throughout the entire affair the ghost of Abraham Lincoln lingers; a ghost we may never be able to understand. And ultimately that is the message I walked away with: No one fully understands anyone. Not while living, and certainly not once they have died. But our stories don't end when we die; our stories, and our choices as a human collective, will be evaluated and re-evaluated for generations to come. We judge Lincoln as a great leader; does the fact that he may have been gay change anything? No. Who we love, is just who we love. It doesn't change a thing.
I hope this play does well. I hope many people see it. I hope it even gets an award or two. I also hope it becomes dated incredibly fast. I hope that in my own lifetime it becomes considered a relic of our past, of what we once were, but were intelligent enough to stop being. And frankly, I can't wait to see what Loeb does next.