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The Low Road

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 7, 2018

Chukwudi Iwuji and Chris Perfetti
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bruce Norris's 2013 play The Low Road, first seen in London and opening tonight in its U. S. premiere at the Public Theater, is a fast-paced and often wildly entertaining pageant about the life and times of one Jim Trewitt in pre-Revolutionary America. With a cast of 18 covering 50 different roles, it calls to mind the famously epic stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby from the early 1980s. But Norris has reshaped the familiar coming-of-age formula to serve two different purposes here. On the one hand, the play is a razor-edged spoof of the economic divide between the one percenters and the rest of us. On the other hand, it is a social satire about the basic selfishness and foolishness of all humans. It does seem the playwright is trying to have it both ways, a challenging juggling act he cannot fully sustain without dropping a few balls now and again.

The Low Road takes place mostly between the years of 1759 and 1776, during which time we follow the exploits of young Jim (Chris Perfetti), the bastard son of one G. Washington of Virginia, as he makes his way through the world. As a baby, Jim is left in a basket on the doorstep of a brothel to be raised by the proprietress of the establishment, Mrs. Trewitt (an outstanding Harriet Harris, who manages with great skill her own juggling of four different roles over the course of the two and a half hour evening). A note left with the baby pledges a generous financial compensation when the boy reaches the age of 17. Convinced that the writer of the letter is none other than the wealthy landowner and future president of the United States, Mrs. Trewitt is sufficiently motivated to raise him as best she can under less than optimal circumstances.

Much of what we learn about Jim's journey from rags to riches to his final fate comes to us by way of the narrator, a man who will greatly influence Jim's outlook on life. That would be Adam Smith (Daniel Davis), the 18th Century economic theorist whose glorification of free market capitalism drives much of our financial world view today. While Smith is not the direct source of some of Jim's favorite quotes ("wealth creates wealth" and "the rising tide doth lift all vessels in the harbor"), the ideas certainly stem from the economist. Once Jim latches on to these, they will guide pretty much every self-serving decision he will make for the rest of his life.

As a character, Jim appears to have been modeled on Tom Jones, the titular protagonist of Henry Fielding's 1749 comic coming-of-age novel. Yet, there are important distinctions. While Fielding's character is certainly a scoundrel, he is a charming one who learns over the course of the novel to temper his wild personality with compassion toward others. Not so with Jim, who, while occasionally charming (when he is getting his own way), never seems to mature. He remains totally devoted to his own self-interests throughout.

For a time, it would seem we have found Jim's opposite in John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji), an educated, well-spoken African man whom Jim acquires from a slave merchant. Their relationship over time ranges from testy to reasonably civil until both of their fortunes rise and Blanke becomes a free man (not, however, through any generosity on Jim's part). Blanke's passionate discussions with abolitionist-oriented upper class Brits living in America prior to the Revolutionary War make him a popular figure. But, ultimately, he is outed as being as enamored of his newer, upscale status as his white counterparts. Indeed, by the end of the play, we are inhabiting a world not unlike the one imagined by George Orwell in his novel "Animal Farm," which ends with the commoner farm animals gaping "from pig to man, and from man to pig, but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Meanwhile, with respect to Mr. Norris's satirical jabs at Adam Smith's laissez faire economics theories, the playwright is having a fine old time as well. Things reach a fevered pitch at the start of Act II when we take a detour from the 18th Century into our own time for a sharp-as-a-tack spoof of a meeting of the World Economic Forum (kudos to David Korins for the spot-on set design). While it most certainly removes us from the main story, it does contain the play's most quotably line, spoken by a rare dissenter to the generally enthusiastic support for deregulation of the financial industry: "We've crashed the car once. Do you really want to hand the keys back to the same drunken driver?"

This is audience-pleasing stuff, but Mr. Norris seems to have lost his way here while trying to cover too much territory. Apart from this self-contained time-shifted scene, there is a futuristic science fiction scene that turns up near the end, in which he tries to tie things up with bit of a cautionary tale. Make of that strange interpolation what you will, but these out-of-sync moments give a sense that the play was completed in a rush by, ironically, following the faster if more treacherous "low road" of the title. On the production side, however, it must be said that director Michael Greif keeps everything rolling along at a fast clip, only occasionally getting mired down in a surfeit of expository narration. The cast splendidly manages a multitude of roles, including changes in costumes (designed by Emily Rebholz) and accents, and helping with the necessarily rapid rearrangement of the set. For the noise-and-flashing light-wary, be warned there is a hefty amount of these, including weapons and loud sirens.

The Low Road
Through April 1
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: