Review: ‘The Haunting’ Has a Big Problem With ‘Hamilton’

In the four years since his musical “Hamilton” first opened at the Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda has become one of America’s most successful and ubiquitous entertainers. There he is, serenading President Obama at the White House, triumphantly taking his show to a recovering Puerto Rico, portraying a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins Returns.” And, in a true sign that he has made it to the top of the celebrity mountain, Mr. Miranda has proactively counterpunched potential critiques by playing comedic versions of himself, most notably in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

One way we have not seen him, however, is as a lazy, gullible dumdum — which is how he is portrayed in Ishmael Reed’s show “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

That’s actually a pretty sympathetic take, considering how little Mr. Reed thinks of “Hamilton,” which he accuses of, among other things, turning a blind eye to the Schuyler family’s ownership of slaves and soft-pedaling Alexander Hamilton’s elitist politics and his attitude toward slavery. Mr. Reed’s views are shared by a range of historians, but he is deploying them by using an art form, theater, that only sets up unflattering comparisons to Mr. Miranda’s work — at least judged purely in terms of form rather than content.

In the play, Lin-Manuel (Jesse Bueno), his senses possibly altered by Ambien, is visited by the kind of people left out of “Hamilton”: slaves, Native Americans, Harriet Tubman (Roz Fox). As if in a cross between “A Christmas Carol” and a trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court, each of the witnesses lectures Miranda on the reality behind the audience-friendly Broadway razzmatazz. Mr. Bueno spends a large part of the show looking befuddled as his character is being schooled.

Lin-Manuel tends to fall back on a stock response: He based the musical on Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, which must be a legitimate source because it’s 800 pages long.

Indeed, if there is one villain in “The Haunting” — besides, of course, the founding fathers, white colonialists and an ideology of systematic oppression — it’s Ron (Tom Angelo), here a caricature of a pencil-necked historian and a money-hungry fraud.

The director, Rome Neal, a longtime collaborator of Mr. Reed’s, stages the proceedings in a static, debate-society manner, which only underscores the fact that the same points, essential as they are, keep being made over and over: The musical glossed over a whole lot of unsavory things.

“By romanticizing people who treated human beings as animals, you’re playing along with the system as well,” an indentured servant (Lisa Pakulski) tells Miranda.

“The Haunting” is classic activist theater — the haphazard acting is typical of the genre — that prefers didacticism to dialectic. Miranda merely submits to a series of impassioned monologues, a format that saps the show of the energy that would have been generated by back-and-forth exchange. (The closest we get is a too-brief argument among the visitors over the fact that some tribes held slaves while “the settlers used slaves to fight Native Americans.”)

In other words, this is not especially engaging theater. Too bad, because for better or for worse, America is a country in which entertainment defines whose story is heard.

The Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda

Through June 16 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Manhattan; 212-780-9386, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

The Haunting of Lin Manuel Miranda

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