Much has been made of the lifelong friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, the young Kentuckian who shared a room — and a bed — with the future president while in Springfield, Ill. as a state legislator. The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by sex researcher and Alfred Kinsey protégé C.A. Tripp even made a case for Lincoln’s bisexuality based in part on the letters that playwright and UNC–Asheville professor of literature and language David Brendan Hopes uses as the basis for The Loves of Mr. Lincoln.
But neither Tripp’s controversial biography nor Hopes’ historical drama now playing at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex as part of GayFest 2013 NYC are as provocative as their titles. The Loves of Mr. Lincoln is a pretty straightforward narrative that follows an ambitious politician who becomes the 16th president of the United States. Running an overly long 2 hours and 30 minutes, however, the play is ultimately unfulfilling.
Opening in the aforementioned bedroom of Abe and Josh in the late 1830s, the two young men talk at length about their politics and futures. Abraham (poor, shy, and gangly) and Joshua (wealthy, outgoing, and handsome) are opposites who complement one another.
Much of the first act focuses on Josh’s spurring Abe on to court the vivacious and intelligent Mary Todd. Joshua also criticizes his friend for his tendency to speechify — a critique that can also be volleyed at the playwright. But Abe’s awkwardness around women is extended to the interplay between the two characters who overtly demonstrate their affection to one another. The constant embracing, however, never feels authentic, but merely staged by director Sidney J. Burgoyne for the playwright’s agenda.
And that’s the main problem with The Loves of Mr. Lincoln. Where it should be engaging, it’s simply dull. Torpid direction makes the already lengthy play feel longer than it really is. And although reading Lincoln’s letters onstage may reinforce historical accuracy, it lacks energy (like the show itself).
As Joshua Speed, Stacey Todd Holt has an easy charm and self-assuredness fitting for his character. He is quite amiable as Lincoln’s sounding board and confidante, even when the two disagree on key issues, such as slavery. But his character is a one-dimensional ideal. In the more difficult role of Lincoln, Steven Hauck lacks nuance, mostly due to the script, which portrays him as a jumble of emotions that never coalesce into a cogent character. He comes off intermittently as a wimp or a warrior, with little shading in between. The script never successfully delves into Lincoln’s noted depression and how it shaped his life — and presidency.
Some of the best moments in the show come from the supporting players. By stringing together the scenes with Civil War-esque songs by Stephen Foster, Tyron Davis Jr. is given an opportunity to show off his impressive voice, doing double-duty as White House manservant Tobias, the unnecessary role of a sagacious and pure-hearted former slave.
But it is Leah Curney who commands the stage as the erratic Mary Lincoln (née Todd). Her tart tongue and quick retorts get the most laughs and Ms. Curney fully embodies the contradictory nature of her character. In gorgeous costumes by Carrie Robbins, she is by turns charming and cutting, cordial and cunning, jealous and supportive. The scene where she mocks Lincoln’s sentimentality for a maudlin love song perfectly encapsulates her prickliness — and is a standout moment.
Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between. A scene where Union General Ulysses S. Grant commiserates with Lincoln over the bond between men is particularly pedantic and seemingly forced on to the show’s most masculine character for none-too-subtle reasons. Chugging along to the inevitable assassination, this muddled production offers only glimpses of life when Mrs. Lincoln appears, especially in a startling séance scene in the second act.
Including this play in GayFest seems to support the assumption that the relationship between Lincoln and Speed was more than friendship. It was not uncommon, however, for two men to share a bed in 19th century America — especially a man of such meager means as Mr. Lincoln. History as viewed from the present often skews the reality of the past. The Loves of Mr. Lincoln is guilty of this in its characterization of Abraham Lincoln.