If neatness is what you expect from John Guare's "A Free Man of Color," you'll be doomed to disappointment. Mr. Guare's ambitious new play, which tells the fantastic tale of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a 19th-century millionaire playboy from New Orleans who happens to be black, has a cast of 33 and runs for 2½ crowded hours. Yes, it sprawls, but for all its hectic messiness, "A Free Man of Color" is one of the three or four most stirring new plays I've seen since I started writing this column seven years ago.
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Lucky for Guare, then, that director George C. Wolfe has convened an astonishing creative team and an equally gifted ensemble (26 actors!). Designer David Rockwell and lighting masters Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer make the Vivian Beaumont Theater feel intimate, with sets that are at once minimalist and lavish. Adding to the semiclassical atmosphere is Jeanine Tesori’s insinuating incidental music, with its quotes from Haydn and other composers.
Wright can hold an audience with a cock of the head and his low, raspy voice, but here he’s surrounded by some of the city’s finest stage actors, whipped into a frenzy by director George C. Wolfe. Among others, we savor Veanne Cox as one of Cornet’s several married conquests; Mos (formerly Mos Def) as his sly manservant Murmur; and Reg Rogers as Cornet’s white half-brother, a whinnying simp desperate to reclaim his birthright. John McMartin and Paul Dano contribute nicely shaded portraits of the diffident President Thomas Jefferson and Western explorer Meriwether Lewis, respectively.
A spectacular folly has just crash-landed at Lincoln Cen ter Theater. Eight years in the making, John Guare's latest play, "A Free Man of Color," is an ambitious, awkward, fascinating, lumbering endeavor about the mapping of America's modern physical, social and racial borders. Most of the show, directed by George C. Wolfe, is a maddening slog. But the last 30 minutes are so brilliant that you can't dismiss the whole thing.
By the time Cornet and Jefferson have their dialogue (one of only a handful of true, respectful exchanges between two characters on an equal intellectual footing), we're deep in the second act. Guare resorts to some very literal and op-ed-ish maneuvers in an attempt to guide us out of the hedge maze he's created. Cornet himself might've been the unifying force, but even he isn't unified. "I do not live in factions," he protests, when Jefferson churlishly brings up his mixed-race parentage. Yet Cornet, like the play, is a nacreous combine, lovely and unwieldy, easy to display but hard to manipulate. That's A Free Man of Color: It's not a map, or even an atlas, but a huge, misshapen, distracted globe, one that even a theatrical Tamburlaine like Guare can't quite figure out how to bestride. That doesn't mean it isn't exhilarating to match him try.
Somewhere very far away - as far, say, as the final 15 minutes - "A Free Man of Color" becomes an important play. Finally, after 2 ½ hours of brain-blurring historical asides, strenuously costumed artifice and luxuriously overpopulated incoherence, the point and resonance of this crazy-ambitious collaboration between playwright John Guare and director George C. Wolfe fall deeply into place.
Wright furiously tears around as the flamboyant Jacques. Subtly depicting the fop's long-suffering servant Murmur, Mos also blazes for a bit as the fiery Toussaint.John McMartin wryly portrays a pragmatic Jefferson. Reg Rogers is very funny whether as Jacques' vengeful half-brother or the oily French diplomat Talleyrand. Veanne Cox and Peter Bartlettcomically contrast as aristocratic refugees upset by New Orleans' raffish society while Nicole Beharie is winsome as a spunky country girl who soon comes to love it. Paul Dano, Nick Mennelland Arnie Burton brightly materialize as various personages.
You can't say John Guare's new play "A Free Man of Color" isn't ambitious in scope or awash in extravagant eye candy. Or that the huge cast of 33 isn't fully committed. But unfortunately that doesn't add up to a satisfying evening.
Eclecticism has always been essential to Mr. Guare's writing, which at its best juggles mismatched elements of culture, high and low, with daring and dizzying skill. This is the man who memorably combined tabloid prurience (and famous-name dropping) with classic poetic lyricism... But here, in his first new play on Broadway in 18 years, he seems less to be juggling than tossing bright balls of allusion and information onto the stage and praying that they'll land in a coherent pattern.
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.
This is one excruciating, headache-inducing evening of theater — and a long one at that.
The playwright's ambition cannot be denied: It is a geographically sprawling, frantic affair set primarily in New Orleans about the chaotic years at the turn of the 19th century as the Great Powers squabbled and swapped land at a whim. Fictional characters are mixed with historical giants.