Modeled on an 18th century picaresque novel, Bruce Norris’s “The Low Road” on stage at the Public Theater presents the improbable adventures of a scoundrel, one Jim Trewitt, to whom an adversary rightfully attributes “a rather comprehensive wickedness.”
It is a wild ride through the first two decades of Jim’s life in Colonial America, which lead up to the American Revolution, peopled by some 50 vivid characters – whores and highwaymen and Hessians; celibates and slaves and British soldiers; Mohegan scouts , rich liberal benefactors and giant alien bees — portrayed by a superb cast of 17, including Chris Perfetti as the delightfully sniveling anti-hero, and the priceless Harriet Harris as the naïve Madame who raises him.
There is what some theatergoers might see as a catch, although others would view it as an enhancement. Norris intends “The Low Road” as a lesson in economics – or, more precisely, as a cautionary tale about the evils of Republican-style capitalism.
It is impossible to avoid this theme. Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher and economist, narrates the play, the character (portrayed by Daniel Davis) a near-constant presence. Jim, the son of a thief and a whore left as an infant on the doorstep of a house of prostitution, stumbles upon a passage of Smith’s writing that explains the economist’s belief in the free market – that society functions best when every individual is left to pursue his own self-interest without regard to the community at large. These individual self-interests collectively create an Invisible Hand that guides society. Jim is seven years old when he reads about the Invisible Hand, and it guides the rest of his life of avarice, betrayal and outright thievery.
“How convincingly those words resonate within the ears of a child,” Adam Smith tells us. “For if the fruits of a man’s labour may be enjoyed without regard to consequence, if every penny therein derived is to be his alone, to do with as he pleases, he will apply himself to that labour, and once his prosperity is thus achieved, the rest of the damnable world can stick it up their fucking arsehole.”
“The Low Road” is not above such low blows. Norris is not making what you might call a subtle argument, although he is frequently amusing. The playwright scores points against free market thinking throughout the play, working them into scene after scene. When Jim, after being robbed, is rescued by a religious community, he sanctimoniously quotes the dogma of free market economists as if the sayings are from the Bible – “The rising tide doth lift all vessels in the harbor”; “the Lord helps them what helps themselves”; “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” No, the congregants tell him, none of these sayings are in Scripture. What IS in the Bible: “The poor have always been with us.” The leader of the community adds: “What He tells us is that our obligation is perpetual and everlasting.”
In another episode, when Jim seeks to buy a slave, the slave merchant speaks of his merchandise like a modern-day salesman (“If you’re not a hundred percent satisfied, within thirty days’ time we’ll gladly exchange ya for another of equal or lesser value, minus wear and tear to the first.”)
As if to make sure the audience gets the point, “The Low Road” even leaves the 18th century for one satirical scene in the 21st, a panel discussion at a world economic forum with pro-business eggheads and self-satisfied businessmen – including, slyly, “Richard Trewitt of Trewitt Bank Global, LLC,” an apparent descendant of Jim Trewitt. Only one panelist, a retired banker and eminence grise named Ed, cautions against the “mad rush for profitability” and the push for deregulation that could, as it did in the Great Recession ten years ago, destroy lives. “I do start to wonder – the question occurs whether the past decade has taught us anything at all.”
Norris, best-known for his Pulitzer and Tony winning play “Clybourne Park,” a take-off and sequel of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” uses “The Low Road” to express an impressive number of opinions. He weighs in against climate change, the hypocrisy of rich liberals and dynamic airline pricing, and argues for universal free education and collective bargaining, mostly through the playwright’s main mouthpiece, Jim’s slave John Blanc (Chukwudi Iwuji), who has his own improbable and mesmerizing story.
There is no way to escape the playwright’s built-in commentary, but under Michael Greif’s direction, “The Low Road” is the very definition of rollicking. The long running time (160+minutes including intermission) can be taxing, since some scenes don’t work well, and some are too way out there even to assimilate – be prepared for an awkward visit by giant bee-like aliens with pessimistic prophecies on the future of the human race. Still, there is enough low comedy and high jinks along the way to make “The Low Road” worth traveling.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
The Low Road
The Public Theater
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Tessa Albertson, Max Baker, Kevin Chamberlin, Daniel Davis, Crystal A. Dickinson, Gopal Divan, Harriet Harris, Jack Hatcher, Chukwudi Iwuji, Johnny Newcomb, Chris Perfetti, Susannah Perkins, Richard Poe, Dave Quay, Aaron Ray, Joseph Soeder, and Danny Wolohan
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Matt Tierney
Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova
Composer: Mark Bennett
Music Coordinator: Wayne Barker
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission
Tickets: $30 to $150
“The Low Road” is scheduled to run through April 1, 2018