A Free Man of Color

John Guare's audacious history play sprawls all over 1801 New Orleans.

  • Photograph: T Charles Erickson


  • Photograph: T Charles Erickson


  • Photograph: T Charles Erickson


  • Photograph: T Charles Erickson


Photograph: T Charles Erickson


Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

I've never been to Mardi Gras, but I imagine it's something like the experience of following John Guare's gaudy and overstuffed A Free Man of Color, a spangled, jangling historical pageant that's alternately sublime and trite, profound and trivial. The self-conscious hodgepodge of styles and ideas can take a jerky, uneven rhythm, but there's plenty here to dazzle the eye and occupy the mind.

Set mostly in New Orleans, with breathless excursions to France, Haiti and Washington, D.C., the script dances postmodernly among Restoration comedy, bouffon sketch, neoclassical tragedy and bawdy sex farce. We start in 1801, when the American republic was young and Spain controlled New Orleans, a town that Guare paints (a bit too unironically) as a multiethnic utopia. Our hero is Jacques Cornet (Wright), a freed, mixed-race slave who has inherited his master's wealthy estate. Wright inhabits the outsize, foppish Cornet (and his cornea-burning wardrobe) with tireless reserves of wit and elegance. A dandy, a womanizer, a hedonist and a playwright, Cornet is ripe for a spectacular tragic fall.  

Wright can hold an audience with a cock of the head and his low, raspy voice, but here he's surrounded by some of the city's finest stage actors, whipped into a frenzy by director George C. Wolfe. Among others, we savor Veanne Cox as one of Cornet's several married conquests; Mos (formerly Mos Def) as his sly manservant Murmur; and Reg Rogers as Cornet's white half-brother, a whinnying simp desperate to reclaim his birthright. John McMartin and Paul Dano contribute nicely shaded portraits of the diffident President Thomas Jefferson and Western explorer Meriwether Lewis, respectively.

Staged by Wolfe with an eye for maximalist splendor and kineticism (with considerable help from David Rockwell's luscious, baroque sets), the rush of comedy and historical detail can grow unquestionably exhausting and shrill. However, the sheer ebullience of Guare's language, taking inspiration from a raft of forebears spanning Congreve to O'Neill, begins to win you over, and Wolfe keeps the motley epic on track for its grimly powerful finale. "I need to play a role in this Hobbesian juggernaut called history," Cornet muses in one self-conscious moment. Everyone gets their role in this impressive assemblage, and plays it to the hilt.

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Vivian Beaumont Theater. By John Guare. Dir. George C. Wolfe. With Jeffrey Wright. 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. Buy tickets.