John Guare, in his playwriting, loves making things difficult. Verbally elaborate, dramatically digressive and freewheeling, his works often seem hell-bent on challenging their own structures. The simple matter of what happens next is rarely central to a Guare play: The key questions are more often whether its disparate elements will coalesce into a cohesive whole, and whether audiences can absorb the Tilt-a-Whirl trajectory of its action. A Guare script may delight or disappoint, or even do both at once; the one thing it will never do is hold still for the easy assimilation that commercial producers adore. That Guare’s stature, despite his joyous knack for putting obstacles in his own path, actually includes a modicum of commercial success indicates how substantial his talent is. Even his bigger disappointments can’t be readily dismissed.
Not that anyone would dismiss A Free Man of Color (Vivian Beaumont Theater), Guare’s new giant-size play, to which Lincoln Center Theater has given an epically lavish production under George C. Wolfe’s direction. LCT deserves applause for rescuing the work when the Public, which had commissioned it, withdrew for budgetary reasons. Their generosity may have its reckless side, but even penny-counters should be pleased to see the kind of expenditure usually reserved solely for money-grubbing ventures committed to a serious, ambitious foray by an American writer.
And virtues buried inside A Free Man of Color‘s excessiveness justify its cost, mainly in the play’s last half-hour, when the material that Guare has trifled with for most of the evening finally does coalesce into dramatic substance, carrying great power and powerfully performed. That Jeffrey Wright, in the arduous central role, can find the stamina to play these final scenes full out, after two hours of nonstop display, constitutes a miracle in itself, though the vocal effort entailed was audible throughout the Sunday-afternoon press performance. Wright’s total commitment, like Lincoln Center’s, deserves applause.
Still, a little common sense might have made matters less arduous for both Wright and the theater’s budget. Guare’s play suffers from multiple intentions; more searching pre-production discussions could have helped him tighten its focus without diminishing its scope, and have helped Wolfe capture its sweep with greater economy of means. The script’s first intention is to convey the life of a “free man of color” in New Orleans before and after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. To do this, Guare plunges pell-mell into the polyglot life of the great river port, central to what had been a Spanish and then a French colony before the U.S. acquired it.
Slavery was built into Louisiana’s colonial reality, but France viewed the mixed-race offspring of slave and master very differently from America’s slaveholders. Guare is mistaken in thinking Louisiana’s hommes libres de couleur led wholly integrated lives. In certain distinct, whites-only realms, people of pure French descent kept a haughty distance from their half- or quarter-kinfolk. But in many respects, people of part-African heritage were freer than anywhere else in the South. They could attain public prominence, own businesses, inherit property, and even purchase slaves.
That last fact gives Guare’s play its mainspring. Jacques Cornet (Wright), having inherited his wealthy white father’s entire estate, devotes his life to impressing other men’s wives with his sexual prowess, his slave, Murmur (Mos, a/k/a Mos Def), serving as go-between. Inset scenes, mostly in cartoon-caption shorthand, chronicle the political maneuverings in Washington, Madrid, and Paris that ultimately give Louisiana to the U.S., along with those that drive the Haitian rebel leader Toussaint Louverture (Mos again) first to power, and then to prison and death. Improbable circumstances, somewhat arbitrarily hooked to these diplomatic chicaneries, lead Cornet, aided by Murmur, into a double imposture that borrows the central elements of both Wycherley’s The Country Wife and Jonson’s Volpone, classics with little connection to Guare’s themes or the era he is purportedly exploring.
The top-heavy theatrical Dagwood sandwich that results, hard to swallow in itself, becomes even less digestible through Wolfe’s approach, which mistakes louder for funnier. The phrase “Restoration comedy,” much tossed about in pre-opening publicity, couldn’t be less relevant, unless you think Etherege, Dryden, and Congreve were the Three Stooges. A cast full of first-rate comic actors nearly gets buried in the avalanche of wigs and finery. Reg Rogers, as Cornet’s envious half-brother, Veanne Cox as an aristocratic bluestocking, Peter Bartlett as an ultra-reactionary planter, and John McMartin as a doddery Thomas Jefferson barely snatch a few effective moments each; Nicole Beharie, as Guare’s post-Wycherley country wife, displays a nice un-sugary sweetness.
Apart from Mos, subtly cloaking inner fury with understatement, and Wright, dashing boldly into every task the script throws him, the others either make no impression or register so loutishly you wish they hadn’t made one. Until the finale, when Guare finally forgoes his frivoling and steers Cornet toward confronting the reality of his, and America’s, situation, the whole event seems to be shoving its way through layers of gauze, like a riot occurring at the far end of a fabric warehouse. The clamor may ultimately turn out to contain something of importance, not currently discernible.
Easily discernible, though no less frustrating, is the talent of newcomer Nick Jones, author of The Coward (LCT3 at the Duke), another 18th-century pastiche produced by Lincoln Center. In a diction that’s half lace ruffles and half thuggish anachronisms, it tells of the namby-pamby youngest son (Jeremy Strong) of a pugnacious aristocrat (Richard Poe) fixated on dueling. Hopelessly unhistorical and only minimally coherent, the story suggests an American schoolboy’s revenge on too much Masterpiece Theatre.
Sam Gold’s production struggles, unrewardingly, to steer a middle course between total seriousness and blatant SNL spoof; the largely excellent cast offers gratifying help, as do Gabriel Berry’s lush costumes, elegantly toeing the fine line where just enough slides toward too much. Ability, ambition, and a passion to say something make Jones welcome. Whether less lavish treatment might have helped him, or Guare, sort out his intentions more lucidly is a different, perhaps more troubling, matter.