Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Free Man of Color **

This seems to be Lincoln Center Theater's season for wildly ambitious, lavishly produced, deeply flawed productions --first "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (which I enjoyed despite its flaws) and now John Guare's "A Free Man of Color." This melange of faux-Restoration comedy, historical pageant and Don Juan tribute, with a few metatheatrical tricks (a play within a play, allusions to future events) is a mess. But what an interesting mess! 26 actors portray 37 characters including Napoleon, Tousaint L'Ouverture, Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Walter Reed and Feydeau  The plot revolves around Jacques Cornet, a freed mulatto, dandified Casanova and the wealthiest man in 1800 New Orleans, whose prodigious endowment makes him catnip to the ladies. Jeffrey Wright brings him vividly to life. The cast is a veritable cornucopia of New York stage actors, including Peter Bartlett, Veanne Cox, John McMartin, Mos, Reg Rogers, Robert Stanton, all of whom shine. George C. Wolfe keeps things moving smoothly.The sets and costumes, by David Rockwell and Ann Hould-Ward respectively, greatly enhance the production. Would that all the fine acting, gorgeous sets and lush costumes were in service of something a bit more coherent and substantive. Although the play certainly has many shortcomings, it also has its share of enjoyable moments. I salute Lincoln Center Theater for taking on an ambitious project that no commercial producer would touch.

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