Seen on Broadway: In an arid season I hate to penalize a play as ambitious as A Free Man of Color, particularly one from the pen of John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation). But the show is both overstuffed and diffuse, and doesn’t play to the dramatic strengths of its star, Jeffrey Wright, until deep in its second act. I’m sorry to report that by then it was too late for a chunk of my audience at the Vivian Beaumont, who, exercising their manumission, fled at intermission.
The agonizingly arch first act doesn’t do anything that the somewhat similar Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson did better, and shorter, and with a few songs. Wright, trying too hard to be ingratiating, is Jacques Cornet, who, at the beginning of the 19th century in Spanish-ruled New Orleans, lives free and randy, consorting with numerous mistresses and bantering with a slave of his own, Cupidon Murmur (Mos, his co-star in the Broadway run of Topdog/Underdog). Forced and unfunny, the play, based on William Wycherley’s 17th century comedy The Country Wife, drags heavily. But there are larger forces at work, which shift the storyline—and America—in a different and ultimately more compelling direction. As his meeting slaves imported from what is now Haiti radicalizes Jacques, Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) and Napoleon (Triney Sandoval) dicker over the Louisiana Purchase, which will have a direct impact on the once-carefree dandy. In the play’s best sequence Jacques, in exile from his changing city, meets the explorer Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano) in “the whiteness,” that vast and forbidding part of the map that is being filled in by expeditions. By then though the show, a grab bag of tones uncertainly directed by George C. Wolfe, will have exhausted all but the hardiest theatrical adventurers.
Credit Lincoln Center, however, for throwing all its considerable resources into making the play work on the visual level (and aurally—Scott Stauffer’s sound design is authoritative). After the economical Elf David Rockwell has been given free reign to imagine America in its transformation into a world power, and he has done so deftly, with the show transpiring beneath an ornate frame. This yields to more fully embodied environments that come on and off seamlessly, like a New Orleans besieged by yellow fever, and the intimidating expanse of “the whiteness.” Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer further carve out these spaces with precision illumination.
The play’s most successful element is Ann Hould-Ward’s spectacular costumes, which provide all the merriment that Guare stumbles to get across. Wright opens the show by saying that “this was the last time men would dress like this” but I doubt any man dressed quite this foppishly. Or as eloquently—the masks the yellow fever victims wear communicate their plight better than any dialogue, and there is a stunning battle sequence fought by actors wearing hats in the shape of their countries’ ships. Clothes do not make A Free Man of Color--they do help, however, make sense of its disjointedness.
Seen Off Broadway: The Brits Off Broadway festival continues at 59E59 Theaters with Haunted, in which playwright and novelist Edna O’Brien revisits an uneasily married couple, Jack and Gladys Berry, that she created for British television 50 years ago. She (two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn) jollies the union along, keeping Jack’s past transgression and a devastating miscarriage at bay with the help of positive attitude and a nip or two; he (veteran character actor Niall Buggy) begins a friendship with a young woman, Hazel (Beth Cooke), that proves so consuming he pretends that Gladys is dead and gives Hazel her clothes in exchange for elocution lessons. As the title indicates this doesn’t end well, but there is humor amidst the heartbreak and the actors, under Braham Murray’s direction, give flavorful (and quite physical) performances.
A good thing, as O’Brien has packed maybe too much into this play, with references to Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, and Edward Albee, the last suggesting that the production takes place circa 1960. But intentionally it seems out of time, with ghostly visitors spooking Jack from behind designer Simon Higlett’s translucent walls and a tell-tale baby doll and carousel horse lending an insinuating quality to his otherwise drably appointed set. The lighting (Johanna Town), video (Jack James), and sound design (Pete Rice) are tightly integrated to convincingly evoke an aura of the past and present in unhappy co-existence. Haunted plays through Jan. 2.—Robert Cashill
A Free Man of Color