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Bruce Norris’ new comedy may be set in the 18th century, but it feels particularly urgent given today’s impassioned debates over tax cuts, tariffs and entitlements. Now receiving its U.S. premiere at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, The Low Road concerns a young man who, taking his cue from Adam Smith, becomes a passionate adherent of laissez-faire capitalism to further his outsize ambitions. And when I say he takes a cue from Smith, I mean it literally, since the author of the seminal financial tome The Wealth of Nations (as played by the delightful Daniel Davis) serves as the play’s narrator.
A picaresque fable in the style of Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens (a program note helpfully describes it as “a kind of anti-Candide“), the play depicts the adventures of its antihero Jim Trewitt, played by Chris Perfetti. (The character was originally named Trumpett when The Low Road premiered five years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre, but the playwright changed it to avoid the similarity to the current White House occupant.) As an infant, Jim gets deposited on the doorstep of a Massachusetts whorehouse accompanied by a note identifying him as the “bastard child of G. Washington of Virginia.” He’s adopted and raised by the kindly madam, Mrs. Trewitt (the invaluable Harriet Harris, recently seen in Phantom Thread).
Years later, Jim’s random encounter with Adam Smith makes him a passionate advocate of the free market as ruled by “the invisible hand.” As he single-mindedly strives to make his fortune, Jim practices a particularly ruthless form of capitalism involving fraud, theft, even murder. During his travels he purchases a slave, John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji), who turns out to be the well-educated former heir of a British aristocrat. The two men get involved in a series of encounters that include a passionate debate about morality with a family of Puritans and Jim nearly getting killed by Hessian mercenaries.
An entertaining interlude interrupts the historical pageantry at the beginning of Act II, momentarily catapulting us into the present day. A group of panelists at the Davos-like “Forum for Economic Progress” are debating the current free-enterprise system, the defects of which were painfully apparent during the financial crisis a decade ago. “I’m saying we’ve crashed the car once,” declares one of them. “Do we really want to hand the keys back to the same drunken driver?” Another panelist keeps trying to make a point, only to be periodically interrupted by microphone feedback.
Norris, here working in a far more ambitious vein than in such previous efforts as The Pain and the Itch, A Parallelogram and the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, doesn’t fully succeed in weaving his expansive theatrical canvas. Although several episodes register dramatically or comedically, the proceedings are more often than not jumbled and confused. The play’s themes regarding the rapaciousness of unchecked capitalism feel forced and repetitive; ironically, Adam Smith, although amusingly played by the sonorous-voiced Davis, seems irrelevant, frequently nothing more than a silent witness to an overly busy swirl of events. By the time a pair of giant alien bees show up to scout our planet for future colonization upon mankind’s demise, it’s become clear that the playwright’s reach has exceeded his grasp.
Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hanson, Rent) does an excellent job of staging such a complex production with no fewer than 17 actors in 50 roles. But the lavish show feels hopelessly cramped on the small stage, despite David Korins‘ skillfully versatile sets.
Perfetti does fine by the leading role, but it’s hard not to hanker for its charismatic originator Johnny Flynn, currently otherwise engaged in the Atlantic Theater’s production of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen. The rest of the ensemble does sterling work, from Iwuji’s commanding Blanke to Davis’ droll Smith to the terrific turns in multiple roles by such veterans as Harris, Kevin Chamberlin and Richard Poe. Unfortunately, the fine efforts of everyone involved aren’t enough to lift The Low Road to the theatrical heights to which it aspires.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Tessa Albertson, Max Baker, Kevin Chamberlin, Daniel Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, Gopal Divan, Harriet Harris, Jack Hatcher, Josh Henderson, Chukwudi Iwuji, Johnny Newcomb, Chris Perfetti, Susannah Perkins, Richard Poe, Dave Quay, Aaron Michael Ray, Joseph Soeder, Danny Wolohan
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Michael Greif
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music: Mark Bennett
Sound designer: Matt Tierney
Presented by The Public Theater