Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 18, 2010
A Free Man of Color A new play by John Guare. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Sets by David Rockwell. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer. Original music by Jeanine Tesori. Sound by Scott Stauffer. Choreography by Hope Clarke. Cast: (in alphabetical order) Yao Ababio, Peter Barlett, Nicole Beharie, Arnie Burton, Rosal Colón, Veanne Cox, Paul Dano, Sara Gettelfinger, Derric Harris, Justina Machado, Joseph Marcell, John McMartin, Nick Mennell, Mos, Teyonah Parris, Postell Pringle, Esau Pritchett, Brian Reddy, Reg Rogers, Triney Sandoval, Robert Stanton, Wendy Rich Stetson, Jerome Stigler, Senfuab Stoney, David Emerson Toney, Jeffrey Wright.
This production of A Free Man of Color is one of rare extravagance, even rarer beauty, and all-but-extinct invention. Featuring a cast of 26; glorious sets (by David Rockwell), costumes (by Ann Hould-Ward), and music (by Jeanine Tesori); and a full day of surprises packed into a mere two and a half hours, it thrusts you back to a more dignified, romantic age, when producers weren’t afraid to give stage shows anything and everything they required. With it, director George C. Wolfe has outdone many of his own remarkable accomplishments, with a staging that’s as supple, fluid, and unpredictable as the visuals are lush. This is exactly what a play should look like.
If only there were a play. Guare has constructed a dazzling series of moments that Wolfe and his team have given vibrant life. But along the way, Guare has managed to say nothing of consequence, settling instead for platitudinous moralizing our gaping eyes insist this work must be above. To find another nonmusical that so stylishly wastes its bottomless well of resources, you must go back to at least Coram Boy, in 2007 — but that work, like last season’s less exciting Enron, had the courage of its convictions. This play’s insistence on mimicking courage from no convictions whatsoever is considerably less ingratiating.
It starts off well enough, invoking the easy promise of a dual-edged costume drama. On one hand, there’s the dynamic figure of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), who in his powdered wig and sumptuous attire looks as if he just stepped out of a Callet portrait, informing us with the help of his slave, Cupidon Murmur (Mos), that he will be presenting his self-written masterpiece about “the sanctity of surfaces” and “the value of veneer.” On the other hand, we have the play itself, which begins in 1801 New Orleans and concerns social scion Cornet dallying endlessly with women and constantly purchasing maps of the mythical land beyond the Mississippi, in hopes he’ll find some route to get his clothing delivered more quickly.
Act II is hardly less evolved, as the fall of New Orleans, Jacques’s struggling to match the fashion of the times sending him down a dangerous course, and Lewis (Paul Dano) undertaking his expedition don’t convince us they’re anything other than Guare’s contrived means of shoving his story toward the most obvious preordained end possible. And whenever you’re sure that no new development will condescend to take you further down that road, darned if that isn’t what happens. The ultimate destination, like much of the immediate build-up to it, is so flavorlessly preachy, you can’t help but wonder whether it needs so much pageantry to get there.
And, of course, whether it even needed to go there. Guare’s tunnel-visioned view of America’s prejudiced past provides neither answers nor fresh questions, and is thus reliant on its spectacle to keep you engaged. Rockwell’s sets, which alternately (but cohesively) recall a big-budget picaresque and an experimental psychodrama; Hould-Ward’s daring get-ups constantly documenting the war between status and taste; Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s piercing and playful lighting; and Tesori’s panoramic underscoring never grow wearying. But once the writing proves it’s unable to live up to their standards, the trappings become more intrusive than insightful, yet more elements that fail to jell into a single, original statement of what being an American really means vis-ŕ-vis race.
The acting, too, is of uneven utility. Wright has the proper energy for an insatiable 19th-century bon vivant, but adopts an impenetrable fey accent that makes it difficult to take Jacques’s successes and travails seriously. Sandoval and McMartin play their famous roles as inflated caricatures, as if no greater differences existed between Jefferson and Napoleon than their voices and the French emperor’s love of a good bath. Mos finds an acceptable balance between light and dark comedy, though the role might benefit from a more nimble onstage presence.
That’s some fraction of the overall point, that the world may start spinning in a new direction before the people on it are ready — the play covers barely five years, but so much happens that you may as well be presiding over a nuclear holocaust and its aftermath. It’s all intriguing on some level, but without a juicy narrative linking all the disparate pieces, Guare’s ostensibly meaningful exploration of a uniquely American problem ends up lacking any meaning at all. That wouldn’t stop the flow of history, and it can’t stop A Free Man of Color from completing its beautiful, boring, and rambling course.