Theater, like so many industries, has its fashions, which generally strut and fret for their hour until they exhaust themselves and the tide turns. One can almost hear producers say, for instance, “Musicals based on Shakespeare sell. Get me one of those.” And so we’ve been through AIDS plays, biblically-inspired musicals, and anything big and British. But for every major hit or artistic accomplishment, there are lesser works that audiences must simply endure. What starts as the breakthrough “Two Gentlemen of Verona” eventually devolves into the tepid “Your Own Thing.”
The current vogue for being oh-so-clever with history is showing the unmistakable signs of fatigue with John Guare’s new play, “A Free Man of Color.” When the idea works, as with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” or “The Scottsboro Boys,” the result can be sublime. Set to contemporary music, “Andrew Jackson” recast a relatively obscure, dark, and violent period of American history to skewer the shallow emotionalism and anti-intellectualism of our own time. For all its seeming chaos, it is both theatrically and intellectually accomplished. “Scottsboro Boys” took a racially motivated miscarriage of justice and set it up as a minstrel show. Not the subtlest concept, but it has a powerful score, brilliant performances, and lands with a visceral impact.
John Guare’s new play wants to make history cool, but it’s a hot mess
Guare’s play has none of the immediacy or resonance of either of those two pieces; it seems motivated mostly by the desire to show just how smart the playwright is. Guare has borrowed heavily from the Restoration comedy “The Country Wife,” which itself was more than a century old in 1801, the time Guare’s piece is set. It is the rare audience member who will even get the allusions, and the conventions of Restoration theater — one of many missteps in George C. Wolfe’s leaden direction, which largely confuses frenzy with comedy — are completely alien to modern audiences.
The story sprawls over decades and concerns the politics and international maneuvering of the Louisiana Purchase, the state of slavery in the newly expanding United States leading up to the Civil War, and the life of one Jacques Cornet, the eponymous free man of color.
While the storytelling is largely linear, Guare jumps from place to place and has such variations of tone — from Cornet’s satyr-like sexual conquests to Napoleon shtick to commentary on slavery’s expansion — that it becomes impossible to follow. Inevitably, the play distances the audience.
The first act is broad and littered with incident, acting styles, and inexplicable accents, but the characters are not developed, making it impossible to know what’s at stake for any of them. The second act is more sedate and a bit more coherent, but has its own problems. A long meeting between Cornet and Thomas Jefferson, in which we see how American control of New Orleans undermines the advanced racial sensibilities achieved under French rule, is an occasion for Guare’s preaching rather than true dramatization. Jefferson’s hypocrisy and political expedience might have made for an interesting play. Guare’s writing, however, is so heavy handed that the ultimate analogy to Hurricane Katrina is labored — and not worth the two-and-a-half hours it took to get to.
The charismatic Jeffrey Wright does the best he can with the role of Cornet. At least he’s always fun to watch, even when what he’s doing makes no sense. Mos Def plays his servant Murmur with wonderful focus and intensity. The rest of the cast mostly goes through the paces; they have no other choice.
The production is stunning to look at, however. David Rockwell’s sets are inspired and wonderfully conceived, and Ann Hould-Ward’s sumptuous costumes are extraordinary.
The sweep of history is fascinating, and epics can work. The spare “Andrew Jackson” makes its points and moves on in 90 minutes. Tom Stoppard’s brilliant “The Coast of Utopia” unfolded over nine riveting hours. But what made each of these work was the human element and the fact that audiences were drawn into fully realized worlds. Guare and the producers have missed that point in their desire to catch a trend. Unfortunately, their reach exceeded their grasp.
A FREE MAN OF COLOR
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 W. 65th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.