Part Restoration Comedy and part panoramic saga, A Free Man of Color by John Guare, now playing at Lincoln Center at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Ultimately neither fish nor fowl, it proves to be a great disappointment.
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 as then 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 and the play was picked up by Lincoln Center where it has just opened with Wolfe still involved as director.
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 a Restoration Comedy) 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 (indeed, the total cast comes to 33 with several actors playing more than one role).
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 much smaller and more manageable play, on the one hand, or retaining the epic sweep of Guare’s initial vision and producing the play in all its original five hours grandeur - perhaps over a period of days as a trilogy in the fashion of Tom Stoppard’s epic and very successful The Coast of Utopia. Either of those approaches just might have worked but this attempt at doing it all in one appears to have been doomed to failure.