The Low Road
Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris offers a fascinating take on capitalism and the free market told as a picaresque and ribald 18th century tale of Colonial America on the brink of statehood.
Directed by Michael Greif who also directed The Second Stage production of A Parallelogram, the play is somewhat unwieldy in the manner of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Cervantes’ Don Quixote but then it is a great deal more structured than most picaresque tales. The play is narrated by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (played with wry humor by Daniel Davis), the author of The Wealth of Nations and the founder of modern economic theory.
The play follows the career of foundling Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti) from his childhood home in a brothel in Southern Massachusetts, through his misadventures in and around New London, Connecticut, to a mansion in lower Manhattan in 1776 when he is only seventeen. His on-the-road journey resembles that of Tom Jones or Voltaire’s Candide with the difference that while they are innocent and likeable heroes, Jim, also off to make his fortune, is their exact opposite, a self-interested anti-hero who makes enemies wherever he goes.
Jim, a foundling, is brought to believe great things are in store for him as a letter signed “G. Washington of Virginia” was left in his basket. When he is seven, Adam Smith spends a night in his step-mother’s establishment. Knocking over some ink onto Smith’s manuscript on his night table, Jim learns about “the invisible hand” of self-interest which works for the common good in economic transactions. Next we see him at 17, his stepmother’s bookkeeper, feathering his own nest as he invests the earnings of the girls. When an unfortunate incident with a gun causes Jim to leave in a hurry, he puts his theories to work. He is told he can either take the high road or the low road, but the latter is quicker.
His journey takes him to New London where he acquires the outfitting of a gentleman and an educated slave John Blanke (who is not above a few cons of his own.) Discovering that all are not honest but most are motivated by self-interest, Jim and John find themselves as guests of a religious community much like the Shakers where all share and share alike, except for sex which they have sworn off. Jim eventually becomes bookkeeper for Isaac Low, a wealthy New York merchant, his wife and daughter who take him and John in. Here Jim continues to work his theories to the detriment of his employer but the betterment of himself. It all comes crashing down when a Frenchman who is a creditor of Low visits with his mistress, John’s former fiancée. The cynical ending demonstrates the invisible hand at work.
Just as Norris has done in other plays, he offers an ironic but tangential scene close to the heart of his theme: we attend a contemporary conference somewhere in Europe on the topic of economic inequality in the workplace. One of the participants is the arrogant Dick Trewitt, a descendant of our hero, and CEO of Trewitt Bank Global, LLC, who has just published a book called The High Road, The Trewitts in the New World. Among the other themes that The Low Road tackles are racism and bigotry, religious smugness, liberal hypocrisy, and judicial malfeasance. Norris’ message seems to be that behind great fortunes there is always some economic skullduggery, since for someone to profit, someone else must lose.
Directed by Greif, the satire is played to the hilt by 17 actors playing 50 characters. Aside from the wry Davis as Adam Smith and Perfetti as the self-interested anti-hero, there are a good number of memorable performances. Chukwudi Iwuji is fine as the naïve and idealistic John Blanke. Harriet Harris is adorable as the stingy bawd Mrs. Trewitt and later as the generous Mrs. Low. Kevin Chamberlin is amusing first as the sinister man who delivers the foundling and later as the high-minded and too trusting Mr. Low. Crystal A. Dickinson demonstrates tremendous versatility as Old Tizzy, as the hunchbacked servant to Mrs. Trewitt, and later as Ntombi, the elegant slave-concubine to the French merchant LaGarde. As Captain Shirley (to be raised to Colonel in the second act) who continually crops up, Richard Poe is droll as a military man who knows which side his bread is buttered. Seven of the actors also appear in contemporary dress in the satiric 2018 economic conference scene to spout totally laughable economic theories of equality.
Emily Rebholz has had the job of creating the period-perfect array of costumes, from people at the bottom of society all the way up to the top. She has been considerably aided by the wig, hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova. The stylized settings are most atmospheric in David Korins’ designs. Ben Stanton’s lighting shifts the mood for the various scenes described as “chapters” by narrator Adam Smith. Mark Bennett is responsible for the original music, while Thomas Schall is credited with the fight choreography.
Bruce Norris’ The Low Road may be a bit untidy in the way of all picaresque stories with their ups and downs, and may have taken on a few too many targets. However, not only is it delightfully entertaining with its continual surprises, it may be more pertinent now than when it was written during the Obama Administration with the current policy of deregulating laws that police the stock market. The Low Road is both a cautionary tale and a provocative survey of economic practices that unchecked lead to disaster.
The Low Road (extended through April 8, 2018)
The Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
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