Playwright John Guare’s new play, A Free Man of Color at Broadway’s Lincoln Centre Theatre, is a shrill, overstuffed two-and-a-half-hour epic that does not lack for ambition or muchness. There are 33 actors, even more characters, lavish sets by David Rockwell, rich and witty costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, and serious historical themes about race and democracy that are worth exploring on stage. There is a mix of styles too, from Restoration comedy to puppetry to postmodern breaking of the fourth wall. There is also an over-the-top approach to the material, particularly under George C. Wolfe’s more-is-more direction, that robs the show of any semblance of coherence.
This is one excruciating, headache-inducing evening of theater — and a long one at that.
A Free Man of Color stars an overly affected Jeffrey Wright as Jacques Cornet, a fictional half-black libertine in early-19th-century New Orleans, and features a more naturalistic Mos (the rapper-turned-actor formerly known as Mos Def) as both his slave and the real-life Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Other historical figures pop up as well, including a cartoonish Napoleon Bonaparte (Triney Sandoval), a prickly Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin), an antsy Meriwether Lewis (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano), and a host of others. Too many, as it turns out, because no one narrative thread is sustained for very long. Overall, the show bears the mark of a talented grad student who couldn’t decide on a single thesis topic but instead tried to cram three or four into a single paper.
There is some wit to be unearthed here, and the final half hour hints at some of the big-picture ideas Guare was striving to develop about America’s blinkered view of its own exceptionalism. But his cause is not helped by Wolfe’s direction. Too often, the cast strives for a performance style that is almost vaudevillian in its lack of subtlety and grating to watch for vast stretches of time.
The result is an undercooked gumbo of bawdy sex jokes (at one point, Napoleon wears a codpiece shaped like an erect cannon), historical marginalia (”A berdache is a North American Indian transvestite,” another character informs us), and antic meta-theatricality (there are often more than a dozen characters on stage at once, and they seem to spend more time addressing the audience than they do each other). As a service to theatergoers, the lobby concession stand should consider selling aspirin along with tins of mints. D
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)