Let the weeping and wailing (and public floggings) begin. “A Free Man of Color,” John Guare’s epic play about the fortunes of a wealthy free man of color in New Orleans during that revolutionary era when the 1803 Louisiana Purchase made an empire of our small nation, is not the glorious work it might have been. Through some misguided impulse to play its high comic elements as low sex farce, both scribe and helmer George C. Wolfe have undermined the play’s grand historical sweep. Despite some dazzling writing, spectacular stage effects, a cast of thousands, and a lavish production budget, much of Guare’s ambitious work is reduced to a busy bore.
Lincoln Center’s vast Beaumont stage was built for epic theater and Wolfe is the kind of visionary director who isn’t afraid to use it, so this lavish production does not lack for spectacle.
The ornate proscenium stage that frames the action in David Rockwell’s expansive set design boldly establishes the show’s inherent theatricality. Through the magic of theater (and the professional savvy of an inspired design team), the great stage here accommodates such wonders as a full-dress Mardi Gras ball, the vast unexplored wilderness of the Louisiana territory, and flying trips to France, Spain, and the West Indies.
Collectively, the scenes present the rich historical panorama of a young nation emerging from its 18th-century birth and groping for political purchase in modern times. Individually, they capture deciding moments in history, wittily re-told from Guare’s irreverent modern perspective.
Here’s Napoleon (Triney Sandoval) immersed in his bath and brooding over his territorial losses to England: “I hate the British. I hate Shakespeare. I hate Chaucer. I hate Richard the Lion-Hearted. And when the future comes, I will hate Queen Victoria, James Bond, Charles Dickens.”
But while Guare’s jaunty deconstructions of these complex historical events — part of a cheeky trend currently represented on Broadway by “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Colin Quinn: Long Story Short” — are staged with wonderful crispness and clarity, they are shouted down by the buffoonish character in the drama at the heart of the piece.
This is the story of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a mulatto born into slavery who used his inheritance from his white father to buy his freedom and become the wealthiest man in New Orleans. For a libertine with Cornet’s rich endowments — as a man of great wealth, extravagant tastes, and insatiable sexual appetite — the sexually permissive and racially progressive city of New Orleans is paradise on earth.
But while sexual licentiousness satisfies Cornet’s manhood, it’s fashion that feeds his narcissistic ego — and brings him to grief.
This Beau Brummel is so enamored of the luxurious fabrics he buys from Persia and China (on gorgeous display in Ann Hould-Ward’s elaborate costumes) that he becomes obsessed with finding a quicker route to transport these goods to the Port of New Orleans. To this end, he collects maps of the wilderness west of the Mississippi, where a great inland river is rumored to exist. It is Guare’s most amusing conceit that America’s acquisition of Louisiana hinges on Cornet’s love of high fashion.
In concept, Cornet is a fabulous character of infinite charm. In Wright’s bombastic perf, he’s a vulgar fool who doesn’t seduce women as much as devour them. Guare may have concocted his clever plot from some of the greatest farces in the English language (and lifted some good stuff from Moliere), but his broad treatment of his sources ignores the elegance of the form. And unlike his smooth handling of the historical scenes of political satire, Wolfe’s coarse approach to sex comedy kills what remains of the humor.
Some members of the ensemble manage to make it to high ground. Mos brings as much dignity to Cornet’s browbeaten slave, Murmur, as he does to the noble revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Another of Cornet’s slaves, Dr. Toubib, is indeed the voice of reason in Joseph Marcell’s unmannered perf. And Veanne Cox is such a comic perfectionist that she survives one of Cornet’s most ridiculous seductions.
Performers cast in multiple roles invariably do their best work when they’re satirizing historical figures. But it takes a strong-willed thesp — someone like young Nicole Beharie, who is quite cute as Margery Jolicoeur, the naughty “country wife” who innocently delivers Cornet to his enemies — to keep from being swept up in Cornet’s clownish games.