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Review: ‘Oh, Mary!’ Turns an Unhinged Bit Into Real Theater

“For God’s sake, Mary!” Abraham Lincoln says to his wife in “Oh, Mary!,” Cole Escola’s unhinged historical fantasia that imagines its protagonist as an alcoholic cabaret singer married to a gay guy. “How would it look for the first lady of the United States to be flitting around a stage right now in the ruins of war!”

“How would it look?!” she responds. “Sensational!”

It’s a moment reminiscent of Escola’s early YouTube humor, like in the sketch “Bernadette Peters Does Her Taxes.” An accountant exasperatingly asks for a ballpark figure, and Escola’s Bernadette, wiggling like a charmed snake with their hands on their hips, asks, “Is this a ballpark figure?”

So stupid. So campy. So unexpected. And yes, like Mrs. Lincoln, even sensational.

There’s little else in New York theater right now quite as surprising as “Oh, Mary!” Written by and starring Escola, it’s a bit taken to an 80-minute extreme that’s silly, nasty, tasteless and, in the end, good theater — the kind of show that will leave you gagging, both in the sense that you’ll be losing your mind with joy, and that you might just be grossed out.

Escola’s humor is tailored like a Bernadette Peters concert gown to New York gays who were brought up on a diet of alt-cabaret and “Strangers With Candy.” Mary Todd Lincoln would scowl comfortably alongside the Hollywood starlets of Charles Busch and the manic guests of “At Home With Amy Sedaris.”

To this lineage Escola adds a sensibility that’s queer and crass; you often get the impression that their ideas start with a wig in search of a story, inspired by tropes from pop culture — mainly, vintage TV and commercials that begin with “I’m a mom.” Out come characters like Donna Germaine, the sweetly hapless real estate agent of “Pee Pee Manor,” and Fifi, the saloon singer of “Our Home Out West,” a parody of 1970s Christmas specials.

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