A Free Man of Color -- Theater Review
At a time when the economic realities of commercial and nonprofit theater dictate that playwrights think small, the chutzpah of "A Free Man of Color" commands respect. But in this rambunctious historical epic about race, class and the scars of nation-building -- which ricochets among 40-plus characters in the U.S., France, Spain and colonial Haiti -- John Guare demands too much of his audience.
Whatever flashes of brilliance it contains, there's a certain willful intellectual arrogance evident in a work that batters the spectator with two hours of zigzagging exposition and opaque characters before coughing up some lucidity in the final half-hour. The sting of that closing stretch -- ruefully observing Thomas Jefferson's compromised vision of a land in which all men are created equal -- provides some reward. But it's a long hard slog to get to a jarring shift in tone and a few nuggets of insight.
Styled as a bawdy 17th century Restoration comedy that acknowledges a debt to William Wycherley, and in its occasional rhyming couplets, to Moliere, the play is set at the start of the 1800s. It centers on Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a preening fop whose mother was a slave belonging to his white father.
Having inherited his father's riches, including his slave Murmur (Mos), Jacques treats racially free-and-easy New Orleans as his personal playground, indulging his passion for fashion and other men's women. Even Margery (Nicole Beharie), the country wife of his resentful white half-brother (Reg Rogers) is fair game. But when Jefferson (John McMartin) purchases Louisiana from France, Jacques fears that his own acquisition of freedom is imperiled.
The play might have been compelling if Guare, Wright and director George C. Wolfe had provided us with a way in.
Jacques needs to charm the pants off the audience as well as every woman in New Orleans, but Wright's self-satisfied performance is all arch, unfunny affectation. The show begins to breathe as something beyond freewheeling spectacle only when the central character and his half-cocked play-within-a-play conceit are sidelined following an unsettling epiphany on a slave ship.
The cluttered narrative includes spells in France with Napoleon (Triney Sandoval) and Josephine (Justina Machado); in the West Indies with Napoleon's doomed brother-in-law LeClerc (Robert Stanton); in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) with anti-slavery revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture (Mos); and on the explorer's trail with Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano), sent by Jefferson to chart the newly purchased territory.
While some of these interludes are more absorbing than others, Dano's haunted embodiment of a figure from the pages of American history lends texture to the later action.
The extreme artifice of the storytelling and broad strokes of the performances make it hard to invest in almost any other character. But Mos (who appears to have lost the Def part) balances servility with eye-rolling forbearance in a shrewdly underplayed comic turn as Murmur
The play had a bumpy path to production. Originally commissioned by the Public Theater during Wolfe's tenure as artistic director, it was dropped when a commercial producer pulled her enhancement money. It's hard not to read the lavishness of Lincoln Center Theater's staging as a rebuke to the Public.
Taking cues from period painting styles, historical iconography and old-world theatrics, David Rockwell's rapid-transformation set designs are sumptuous, as are Ann Hould-Ward's witty costumes.
But the visual embellishments only add another layer of self-indulgence to a play already far too intoxicated with its own cleverness in juggling heady historical rumination with low comedy. The sober reflections on America's national character come too late and too abruptly to resonate fully.
The production is a banquet of too much rich food that allows a pause for digestion only when the diner is over-satiated and exhausted.
Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York (runs through Jan. 9)
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Mos, Reg Rogers, Nicole Beharie, Joseph Marcell, Triney Sandoval, Justina Machado, Esau Pritchett, Teyonah Parris, Sara Gettelfinger, Arnie Burton, Brian Reddy, Rosal Colon, Robert Stanton, Wendy Rich Stetson, David Emerson Toney, Nick Mennell, Peter Bartlett, Veanne Cox, John McMartin, Paul Dano, Yao Ababio, Derric Harris, Postell Pringle, Jerome Stigler, Senfuab Stoney
Playwright: John Guare
Director: George C. Wolfe
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designers: Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound designer: Scott Stauffer
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Choreographer: Hope Clarke
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater