A scene from Lincoln Center's A Free Man of Color. Photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times.
BOTTOM LINE: Part Restoration Comedy and part panoramic saga, A Free Man of Color doesn't seem to know what it wants to be.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? And is it possible to try too hard? A Free Man of Color by John Guare shows that the answer to both questions is yes.
Originally commissioned by The Public Theater in 2002 to write an epic play on race and class in New Orleans circa 1801, Guare submitted his initial draft to George C. Wolfe, then head of the Public, in 2004. That draft ran to 250 pages and, had the play been produced then as written, it would have run for five hours. Unfortunately, the Public's attempt to convince Guare to cut it down to size was so at odds with Guare's own vision of the play that the Public ultimately canceled its plans to produce it. The play was picked up by Lincoln Center where it has just opened with Wolfe directing.
Under Wolfe's prodding, the play has been cut back extensively so that it now runs just two and a half hours. But the price paid for that editing job has been enormous. The net result is that the play now comes across as two distinctly different plays, badly cobbled together.
The play's first act is a hodgepodge of a Restoration Comedy (or perhaps a parody of one) with all the rhyming couplets, ribald humor, swooning insatiable frustrated wives, cuckolded husbands and adolescent references to Jacque Cornet's (Jeffrey Wright's) superior phallic endowment that we have come to expect of that genre. But the second act, in an apparent attempt at retaining Guare's epic vision, spans the world, transitioning abruptly from New Orleans to Washington D.C. to Sante Domingue to France and back again, centering on the events leading up to the Louisiana Purchase and its subsequent social, racial and geopolitical consequences. Worse yet, the entire olio is liberally sprinkled with satirical buffoonish appearances by virtually anyone of note at the time who might have entered Guare's mind: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine, Tallyrand, Georges Feydeau, Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston, Walter Reed, King Carlos Cuarto and more.
Guare's error (and by extension Wolfe's and Lincoln Center's, I think) was to refuse to make the difficult choice between settling for a thematically smaller and more manageable play or retaining the epic sweep of Guare's initial vision and producing the play in all its original five hour grandeur - perhaps segmented in the fashion of Tom Stoppard's epic and very successful The Coast of Utopia which played at Lincoln Center in 2006-2007. Either of those approaches just might have worked but this attempt at doing it all in one appears to have been doomed to failure.
(A Free Man of Color plays at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, through January 9, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. For full schedule with holiday discrepancies, visit lct.org Tickets are $70-$115 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)