Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about A FREE  MAN OF COLOR, HYSTERIA, THREE PIANOS, THE COLLECTION & A KIND OF ALASKA and IN THE FOOTPRINT.

“What a week I’m having!” – Eugene Levy, in Splash.

As those of you who read my column know, I am not exactly known for being a critical critic. My tastes are broad and eclectic; and I try, whenever I write about something I’ve seen, to imagine who might like it, and write my “review” for that person. Imagine my surprise (and, no doubt, yours) that this week I regret I must tell you about three shows which more or less totally suck.

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Lincoln Center Theatre has mounted a production of John Guare’s new play, A Free Man of Color, in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, directed by George C. Wolfe. The play takes place mostly in New Orleans in 1803, and its central character is one of the city’s wealthiest citizens who, amazingly, is a black man whose name is Jacques Cornet. Everybody who’s everybody comes to Cornet’s house, mostly to score a loan but also because the town’s best prostitutes are there. He’s apparently so wealthy, and so well-endowed, that he doesn’t have to go to them – they come to him.

Essentially, the play is about how the Louisiana Purchase came to be made, and the subsequent ramifications this had for our country. This is an interesting subject, and I must say it was a pleasure to see a stage peopled with 26 actors, most playing multiple roles. However, watching the play I thought of Ben Jonson’s famous crack when someone said that Shakespeare’s plays were perfect and ready to go as soon as he had finished them, and that he never changed a line. “Would that he had blotted a thousand,” quipped Ben. To call this play “overstuffed” is an understatement. And all too many of the “jokes” fall flat.

The main reason, though, that the jokes fall flat and indeed, much of the evening, is Wolfe’s direction. Although the play is set in 1803, most of it is staged as though it were a Restoration comedy, done by a director and actors who think that “period style” means hamming it up and acting in general as artificially as possible. Some of this is Guare’s fault, but a lot of it is Wolfe’s.

What annoyed me about A Free Man of Color was that it coulda/shoulda been much better – if Guare had taken his story seriously and Wolfe had taken the play seriously. It also would have been a lot funnier.

By and large, the plays in the annual Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59 E 59 are pretty good. In fact, almost everything at 59 E 59 is pretty good, due to the astute artistic stewardship of Elizabeth Kleinhans over there. This season’s Festival includes not one but two productions by an experimental theatre troupe called Inspector Sands. I saw one of the two, Hysteria. I was hoping that Inspector Sands would be another Knee High Theatre, Emma Rice’s troupe which gave us Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes. No such luck.

Hysteria was about 60 minutes of nonsense about a couple on a first date. There’s also a waiter, who is expressionless and never speaks, sort of like Buster Keaton but not funny. About the only thing I can say for Hysteria is that it is Blessedly Brief.

That’s in contrast to Three Pianos, at NY Theatre Workshop which, like Hysteria, owes much to bad 1960’s experimental theatre. It’s about three piano-playing buds. On a cold winter’s night, they try to buck up one of their number, who’s depressed, so they start playing a depressing cycle of songs by Schubert (Oh, that’s a good choice …) and go back and forth between the present and the past, in which Schubert himself and his buds have a grand old time talking, singing and playing games.

The three performers and pretty good ivory-tinklers but mediocre singers and actors. We are forced to spend over two interminable, intermissionless hours with them. Three Pianos is on my short-list for Bomb of the Year. It’s definitely a must-miss.

Lest you think I must have been in a dyspeptic frame of mind last week, I did see two shows I really liked. Alas, though, they both have closed.

Atlantic Theatre Co., in tandem with CSC, revived two one-act plays by the late Harold Pinter, The Collection and A Kind of Alaska, at CSC. Pinter was a master of mysterious comedies of menace, which is impressively on view with The Collection, one of his earliest plays. It’s about a man who thinks his wife has had it on with a man on a business trip. She may have. She may have not. Pinter leaves a lot to our imagination. A Kind of Alaska, one of his last plays, is about a middle-aged woman who wakes out of a coma in which she has been for 29 years and struggles to understand what has happened to her. Larry Bryggman was terrific in both plays, as was Rebecca Henderson, while Matt McGrath and Darren Pettie were impressive in The Collection. The real standout performance of the evening, though, came from Lisa Emery as the woman who’s been in a coma. Karen Kohlhaas’ direction was perfectly, delicately modulated. I’d love to see what she’d do with Pinter’s Old Times.

If you saw this, lucky you; if not, bummer.

The Civilians’ latest show, In the Footprint at the Irondale Theatre in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, has closed unfortunately. Taking a cue from Moises Kaufman’s The Techtonic Project, The Civilians decide on an issue which interests them, interview all the participants, and then create a play, largely composed of monologues and songs. In the Footprint was about the controversy surrounding the Atlantic Yards construction project. It dealt with the pros and the cons, but wound up damning the developer, a man with a name that sounds like he’s a character in a Restoration comedy (his name is Ratner) and various government officials who allowed him to run rough-shod over anybody who got in his way. Mayor Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz both came across badly. Imagine my surprise …

I wouldn’t be surprised if this terrific docudrama resurfaces somewhere.

A FREE MAN OF COLOR. Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center

TICKETS: www.telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

HYSTERIA. 59 E. 59.

TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200

THREE PIANOS. NY Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St.

TICKETS: 212-460-5475

THE COLLECTION & A KIND OF ALASKA. CSC,

TICKETS: Alas, this just closed. I hope you got to see it.

IN THE FOOTPRINT. Irondale Theatre Ensemble, Fort Greene Brooklyn.

Alas, closed.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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