To the list of iconic images associated with April 14, 1865 — President Abraham Lincoln slumped over in his box at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth shouting ”Sic semper tyrannis!” — add this: a former Star Trek actress, in full 19th-century period dress, brashly declaring herself a ”Trevi Fountain of ideas.” For the first two, we thank history; for the third, all credit to playwright Charles Busch (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife), who has crafted a backstage tale where no dramedy about theatrical politics has gone before: Ford’s Theater during the week Lincoln was shot. Our Leading Lady — currently at Off Broadway’s Manhattan Theater Club — is the story of Laura Keene (played by ex-Star Trek: Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew), a hurricane of a diva who descends upon the small Ford’s ensemble for a limited engagement. Having been disgraced in New York, she’s in D.C. for redemption (and we know she means business when, via letter, she browbeats Lincoln into coming to the ill-fated performance of Our American Cousin).
Though there’s much quintessential Busch (”How tragic,” Laura huffs at a slutty supporting player, ”that you’ve accepted your mediocrity”), the play slows to a crawl when it turns overly dramatic post-shooting. As Laura, Mulgrew speaks in a raspy basso profundo; it’s a commanding performance, though not particularly inventive. (She does, however, get the best lines: During one trying rehearsal, she compares Cousin to a dessert, declaring that ”the souffle has fallen.”) The rest of the characters seem lost in the shuffle — there’s the usual clichéd suspects, including an airhead actress and a wise runaway slave. It can be argued that set designer Santo Loquasto — with his lush flowers and period furniture — is the true star of the show. When Booth staggers across Loquasto’s slanted Ford’s Theater stage, an assassin triumphant, it merits chills. B- (Tickets: nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212)