Joseph Marcell, Jeffrey Weight and Mos in A Free Man of Color (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
A Free Man of Color
Written by John Guare
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Peter Bartlett, Nicole Beharie, Veanne Cox, Paul Dano, Sara Gettelfinger, John McMartin, Joseph Marcell, Mos, Reg Rogers, Triney Sandoval, Jeffrey Wright
Performances through January 9, 2011
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street
John Guare has given himself an impossible task with A Free Man of Color: to present 19th century American and European history in digestible, even bite-size form. The playwright has instead bitten off more than he can chew, for portions of Free Man are indigestible. Whether it’s Guare’s writing—which apportions measured amounts of historical incidents as the basis of an insanely ambitious canvas—or George C. Wolfe’s direction—which transforms history into a cartoon—this is the work of two talented artists who, performing without a net, fall to the ground again and again.
Guare chose a colorful, if little-known, piece of history. It’s 1801 in New Orleans, a French colony now owned by Spain, and a mulatto free man, Jacques Cornet, beds his rivals’ wives when not foppishly overdressing. Accompanied by his faithful if sardonic slave Murmur, Cornet is the locus of a tale that touches on a rebellion in Santo Domingo (modern-day Haiti), Napoleon spreading his empire to the New World, President Thomas Jefferson’s interest in securing New Orleans—which eventually becomes the $15 million Louisiana Purchase two years hence—and Lewis & Clark's expedition.
There are also mentions of yellow fever, Nat Turner and Malcolm X, quotations from Shakespeare and allusions to Congreve, Wycherley and more. If my synopsis seems disjointed, wait until you see the play, which for 2-½ hours flits about these historical personages without ever settling on anyone long enough to make the briefest impression. Supposedly, the play was originally twice as long, but no one would finance or mount such an undertaking, so now it’s been halved with even less depth and coherence.
To hide sundry shortcomings, Wolfe’s gaudy, overly sumptuous production is designed to be as frenzied as possible, with actors scurrying on and offstage, frantically bellowing out their lines. It’s like a sophomoric “SNL” skit run amok and stretched out beyond endurance. Even running gags about big dicks snake their way through this deliberately anachronistic play chronicling 200 years of American racism with very little resonance.
It’s hard to tell if turning real historical characters into ridiculous caricatures is the fault of Guare or Wolfe: John McMartin’s Thomas Jefferson and Paul Dano’s Meriwether Lewis retain their dignity, but Triney Sandoval’s Napoleon and Veanne Cox’s Robert Livingston are tired lampoons.
In an exceptionally large cast which barely defines any of the dozens of denizens it portrays, Mos (formerly Mos Def) scores as Murmur and Santo Domingan leader Toussaint Louverture by simply playing it straight, as does Joseph Marcell as Dr. Toubib, our guide through this historical circus.
Although Jeffrey Wright fails to make Cornet coherent, he's agreeably hammy in the first act, then appropriately stern when debating slavery with Jefferson later on. But he is, ultimately, defeated by a saga that's been underwritten by Guare and overdirected by Wolfe.