BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
"A Free Man of Color" is a mad, glorious mess of circa 1804 world history, quasi-Restoration comedy and conflicting racial issues created with wild ambition and intermittent flashes of brilliance by one of our best playwrights, John Guare, the maker of "Six Degrees of Separation" and "The House of Blue Leaves."
Bowing on Thursday in Lincoln Center Theater's no-expense-spared premiere at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, "A Free Man of Color" is a panoramic study of the forces that reshaped 1800s New Orleans, initially a racially progressive city of Spanish-French origin, into what would become the epicenter of American slavery.
The play also involves a naughty sex comedy that rampages in the forefront of all this intricate history.Sound like a challenging show to see? It is. Imagine Tom Stoppard drunk and you've got some notion of the attempted intellectual scope and theatrical legerdemain of Guare's epic, which demands much from its viewers.
Staged with a 26-member company headed by Jeffrey Wright and Mos, director George C. Wolfe's ornate, bustling production does not always fuse the drama's mix of styles, moods and contents into a coherent, let alone satisfying, presentation.
It helps to be conversant with the plot of William Wycherley's 1675 comedy "The Country Wife," which Guare freely appropriates for his fictional main story of Jacques Cornet, the libertine heir to a fortune as the son of a wealthy white man and a long-sold slave.
Rich, hot, grandly accoutered in satins and lace, Jacques is a cocksure black dandy who seduces all the ladies, high and low, in a freewheeling New Orleans society that is open to people of all ethnic mixings.
Meanwhile, even as Jacques merrily carries on, the faraway likes of Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, King Carlos IV of Spain and their counselors intrigue to win the better deal on acquiring the vast continental territory west of the Mississippi. Closer to home, Toussaint is leading a slave revolt in Haiti that sends refugees of all classes (and yellow fever) to New Orleans.
Eventually the tidal wave of history hits Jacques, who desperately tries to surf with the rapidly changing times that threaten to reduce his free, glittering self to a mere piece of property destined for auction.
Heaps of early 1800s historical and social information are scattered within the wide-ranging work, which is stylized boldly as a surreal cartoon where fictional and real-life characters speak to viewers directly. The second act later ventures into the terra incognita of unmapped America — the "white space" that also suggests a national future dominated by whites — and hastily concludes with a brief coda evoking, among other points, Hurricane Katrina.
Ultimately, "A Free Man of Color" proves to be more exhausting than exhilarating in spite of the heroic efforts of its company to animate Guare's overstuffed monster of a play.
Wright furiously tears around as the flamboyant Jacques. Subtly depicting the fop's long-suffering servant Murmur, Mos also blazes for a bit as the fiery Toussaint. John McMartin wryly portrays a pragmatic Jefferson. Reg Rogers is very funny whether as Jacques' vengeful half-brother or the oily French diplomat Talleyrand. Veanne Cox and Peter Bartlett comically contrast as aristocratic refugees upset by New Orleans' raffish society while Nicole Beharie is winsome as a spunky country girl who soon comes to love it. Paul Dano, Nick Mennell and Arnie Burton brightly materialize as various personages.
The action is accommodated by lavish costumes from Ann Hould-Ward and a setting by David Rockwell that melds a thrust stage bristling with pop-up scenic bits against a grandiose 18th-century proscenium.
Complex, chaotic and teeming with detail, the sprawling play and its pell-mell production are sure to bewilder some viewers as much as they certainly will fascinate others.
"A Free Man of Color" continues through Jan. 9 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.