STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Our American Cousin

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Our American Cousin And so, 133 years ago this week, Tom Taylor's comedy Our American Cousin opened its engagement at Ford's Theatre in Washington -- and Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln decided to attend.

And so, 133 years ago this week, Tom Taylor's comedy Our American Cousin opened its engagement at Ford's Theatre in Washington -- and Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln decided to attend.

Alas, what John Wilkes Booth did soon after the third act began gave rise to a black comic joke: "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

That does bring up a good point. How good or bad was Our American Cousin ?

As the curtain rises, we're in Britain's Trenchard Manor, where servants Skillet and Sharpe set up the furniture while heroine Flo Trenchard sets up the exposition. She reads a letter from her brother, who reports that a now- deceased relative hasn't forgiven his son for marrying Mary, whom he never liked. So he's left his £80,000 inheritance to their American cousin, Asa Trenchard. He's now on his way from Brattleboro, Vermont to claim the loot.

This galls Flo, but interests her friend Augusta ("I can imagine the wild young hunter, an Apollo of the prairie!") Also holding an opinion is Dundreary, an always-there visitor who stutters, lisps, and has a penchant for dumb jokes. Example: "When is a dog's tail not a dog's tail? When it's a wagon." That's what passed for comic relief in the mid-19th century. Asa arrives, dressed like a galoot. He assumes that their astonished looks are admiring ones. "I'm about the tallest gunner, slickest dancer, and generally the loudest critter in the state." Then, one look at Flo, and wow! "One cousin ought to kiss another," he proclaims. Flo prefers a handshake.

Meanwhile, Flo's father Edward finds that he owes £5,000, and tells Coyle, his solicitor, to sell a property to settle the debt. Coyle produces a paper -- with Edward's forged signature -- that says Edward signed the land over to Coyle's now-deceased father several years ago. Edward doesn't remember signing it, but there's his signature. Coyle, though, says he'll return the property to Edward if he can get Flo to marry him.

He's not the only one with marriage plans. Augusta is trying to romance Asa for his money. Though she does wince after she says "au revoir," and he says, "No, thanks, I don't take any before dinner."

What he does take, though, is a nap, right on the living room window seat. He pulls the curtains shut, thus allowing him to overhear that Coyle is trying to blackmail Flo into marriage. "I'll help just as one cousin ought to help another," he proclaims.

He follows Flo to the dairy farm owned by Mary -- who by all rights should have inherited his £80,000. When Asa meets her and sees how hard she works, he's full of admiration. ("Yo're the first right down useful gal I've seen this side of the pond.") He takes out the will and burns it.

This doesn't sit well with Augusta or her mother. "I am aware," says Mom, "that you are not used to the manners of good society." To which Asa rebuts, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside-out, old gal -- you sockdologizing old man trap."

And that was the last line Lincoln heard, for Booth emerged, entered the presidential box, and made his fatal shot.

Had that not occurred, Lincoln would have seen Flo's return, in which she notices the not-quite-totally burned will on the ground, and shows it to Mary. Once Mary learns how self-sacrificing Asa has been, she falls in love with him. As Asa says, "It's astonishing how things have fallen in and out today."

Well, that's one way of putting it. The more cynical among us might say that Booth did the Lincolns a favor by not making them endure the entire performance.

But, believe it or not, Our American Cousin was one of the 19th century's biggest hits. By the time the Lincolns caught up with it, it had been playing around the east coast for nearly seven years. (New York premiere: Oct. 15, 1858 at Laura Keene's Theatre. Playing Flo, incidentally, was one Laura Keene.)

The assassination didn't cause the play to lose its luster. Perhaps it even added to it. Our American Cousin was popular through the rest of the century and beyond. E.A. Sothern, the original Dundreary, was still playing it in 1879. After he died, his son assumed the role, and was in the cast of the very successful 1907 revival.

But here's the real kicker. Two years after the assassination, Hannah Perry, who played Flo on the night of the bloodshed, remarried. Her new husband was Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. -- brother of you-know-who.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com