Jeffrey Wright in
A Free Man of Color
(© T Charles Erickson)
Jeffrey Wright in
A Free Man of Color
(© T Charles Erickson)
If you can make it through the dreadful first act of A Free Man of Color, at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the play ultimately rewards the patient theatergoer with an intriguing look at the complex political landscape in New Orleans and beyond, at the beginning of the 19th century. But until then, John Guare's latest play is a wearying mash-up of styles, most notably Restoration Comedy and historical drama, and George C. Wolfe's production struggles to achieve a coherent tone.

The work begins in presentational fashion, as Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), the titular free man of color living in what was then Spanish-ruled New Orleans, tells us that what we are about to watch is a play of his own invention. But the presence of his free-thinking and back-talking slave Cupidon Murmur (Mos) signals from the get-go that Jacques has less control over his dramatic destiny than he would have us believe.

Nearly everyone in the first act (particularly Wright) speaks in a bombastic and often badly accented fashion. The majority of actors portray multiple roles, and numerous characters are introduced in rapid-fire succession, even as exposition is dumped on the audience in vast amounts. The play strives to achieve a farcical tone, but is too labored for this to be effective. Even the crass sexual humor of the show elicits only a modicum of laughter.

Guare borrows heavily from the plot of William Wycherley's 1675 comedy The Country Wife, as Jacques cuckolds many of New Orleans' most important men, and then pretends that he's been severely wounded by a jealous husband who has rendered him impotent, in order to gain greater access into their homes. The playwright also introduces the character of Margery (Nicole Beharie), the new wife of Jacques' half-brother Zeus-Marie Pincepousse (Reg Rogers), who has a similar dramatic function as Wycherly's character of the same name.

In the second act, the style of the play gradually shifts as Jacques is transformed by his experiences, most notably seeing first-hand the conditions that Black captives from the French colony of Sante Domingue (now known as Haiti) were forced to endure in a ship bound for New Orleans, and his later forced exile from his home. Wright loses the accent that he's affected, and his speech patterns begin to sound more contemporary.

There are far fewer laughs in the latter part of the play, as a dark fate is revealed for several of its characters. Guare also treats the machinations of politicians such as Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) and Napoleon (Triney Sandoval), as well as the leading citizens of New Orleans, in a more serious -- and compelling -- fashion. A highlight of the show is an exchange between Jacques and Jefferson that crystallizes the latter's hypocrisy as the formerly racially progressive city of New Orleans undergoes a radical shift under American rule.

Wright is annoyingly grating early on, but far more effective as the play gets further away from the stylized trappings of the first act. Mos remains a strong presence throughout the entire play, in both his primary role of Murmur, and also that of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. Another performer who enchants throughout is Veanne Cox, particularly as the prim lady scientist Dona Polissena and the comically stooped Robert Livingston. Paul Dano makes a good impression as Meriwether Lewis, although admittedly more in the second act than the first.

The production is blessed with an excellent design team, with particularly strong work from set designer David Rockwell, who elegantly handles the numerous shifts in location (including a striking visual representation of the "white spaces" of the unexplored Louisiana territory), and Ann Hould-Ward, who provides gorgeously ornate costumes that capture the period-specific influences on the fashions of the time.