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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted: December 19, 2010 08:02 PM

Playwright John Guare takes audiences on a wild ride in A Free Man of Color, a lively epic set in 1801 New Orleans. The title's "free man of color," part white, part black, very rich and wholly entertaining, is the flamboyant seducer Jacques Cornet (an amazing Jeffrey Wright). Obsessed with maps of the New World, he carves out his own sphere -- until history intervenes.

Smart and ambitious, A Free Man of Color at the Vivian Beaumont addresses issues of race, sex, slavery and empire. In a world where there are more than 100 terms for people of mixed race -- mulatto (white and black), quadroon (mulatto and white) and mamelouc (113 of 120 parts white) -- identity is freewheeling. Spanish New Orleans allowed slaves the right of self-purchase and to own property. It's a freer society than the U.S., which focuses on economic, rather than civil, rights.

When the play opens, America has 16 states, Jefferson (John McMartin) is president and the Spanish are about to turn over the valuable port of New Orleans to the French. There is a slave rebellion in Sante Domingue (Haiti) led by Toussaint, which terrifies Southern planters, while the vast territory west of the Mississippi, the "white spaces," fascinates Meriwether Lewis (Paul Dano). Into this melee of diplomats and their sexually voracious wives comes Cornet and his slave Murmur (Mos). And as Cornet pursues his desires, politics unfolds in extraordinary ways.

Part Restoration comedy, part history lesson, the production is superbly performed by a 26-person cast, most playing several roles, aided by David Rockwell's evocative sets, Ann Hould-Ward's perfect costumes and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's emotive lighting.

Guare has done his homework, and director George C. Wolfe ties the disparate elements together with flare. But because the political machinations are tangential to Cornet, rather than intersecting with him, it's sometimes difficult to keep a through line. Still, A Free Man of Color is a laudable, compelling work, especially a telling scene between Jefferson and Cornet that shatters American mythology.

Guare focuses on the big picture; Neil LaBute's specialty is men behaving badly. The Break of Noon at the Lucille Lortel is no exception. Here, ordinary guy John Smith (David Duchovny) has survived an excruciating ordeal: A gunman has murdered everyone in his office; he is the lone survivor. How did he emerge unscathed? Smith claims that God spoke to him -- insisting he lead a better life. His charge is to do good -- and share that message with others.

Trouble is, Smith is a womanizing, lying, delusional bore -- and getting cosmic messages hasn't changed his MO. Jut ask his ex-wife Ginger (Amanda Peet) or his former mistress Jesse. He's still a selfish lout; now, he's feeding his ego with divine, as well as earthly, impulses. If God chose him as a messenger, he's got lousy aim.

Like Fox Mulder, Duchovny's character on The X-Files, Smith wants to believe. But Mulder had better scripts and more profound revelations; Smith is a simple man struggling to find his place, post-slaughter, only to discover what the audience already knows: Verbal yapping isn't the same as transcendence. It's more fun to watch his attorney (John Earl Jelks) try to milk the disaster for money or a TV host (Tracee Chimo) grill Smith. LaBute's slim story, lacking dramatic tension, strains credulity even for believers. The only message here: avoid this play.

Pre-Post Theater Restaurant: Villa Mosconi
Since 1976, this family-run Greenwich Village restaurant has focused on dishes from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. First, there is the homemade pasta -- taglierini al pesto, tortellini alla Romana, manicotti and cannelloni -- a house specialty and a must-order. The adventurous can try the wild boar with gnocchi. Chef Pietro Mosconi, who also owns Monte's, its sister restaurant two blocks away, prides himself on the excellence of his food and service. At Villa Mosconi, patrons are treated like family. Seafood dishes, such as trout, salmon and sole, can be prepared "any way you like it." The sea scallops, sautéed in garlic, lemon and oil, is superb, while the pollo alla parmigiana, a perennial favorite, is delicious. Here, the variety of dishes -- 20 antipasti alone -- and the care taken in preparation -- underscores the family's devotion to culinary pleasures. The cellar favors Italian wines and the dessert options, from homemade tiramisu to raspberries with zabaglione, are a perfect end to the sumptuous offerings. For those who want to replicate the experience, Chef Mosconi is offering cooking classes at Monte's (212-228-9194) in January.

Villa Mosconi
69 MacDougal St., New York, NY
212-673-0390
www.villamosconi.com/