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New York City Theater

"The Low Road"
The Public Theater

As if we needed reminding, this country was founded by rich white men who wanted to get richer and keep it white. By some fluke, they also laid the foundation for a thriving capitalist democracy, but at what cost?  And the prime mover and shaker for all this? Why, not an American at all, but a Scotsman named Adam Smith whose “The Wealth of Nations” is the bible of laissez-faire free marketers.

In Bruce Norris’ ornamental, extended, cynical, frolicsome, articulate, cleverly anachronistic  ”The Low Road,” Smith narrates a picaresque tale of one Jim Trewitt, a selfish, double-dealing, lusting-for-wealth, ungrateful twerp. (Norris’ original name for his anti-hero was the discomfiting, too obvious Trumpett.) It’s 1756 and Jim, a foundling brought up by a grasping madam, betrays just about anybody who feeds, clothes or houses him. (Similarities to Fielding’s “Tom Jones” are not unwarranted.)

“He’s going to be a fine gentleman some day,” predicts Mrs. Trewitt, the brothel owner and bee keeper (don’t forget about the bees) who finds him on her doorstep with a note signed by one “G. Washington.” Could the father’s given name be George? Gilbert? In reverse gratitude, when he grows up, Jim steals the madam’s profits.

Jim’s will to prosper takes him hither and yon. On the way he buys a black man, John Blanke, who’s not only highly educated but the heir to the English aristocrat who tried to save him from slavery. Blanke’s intellectual outwitting of Jim, whom he calls “a thoroughgoing coxcomb,” does not, obviously, sit well with the latter. But intellect, in a money-grubbing society, is no match for greed.

On his epic journey, Jim encounters a religious group, a kindly bunch who soon figure out his selfish nature as he lectures them on the value of profit and property. Captured by Hessians, he’s almost executed. Robbed, stripped naked and humiliated, he almost gets away with everything.

As narrated by Adam Smith himself (a droll Daniel Davis), economics contends with idealism. Since loot not love makes the world go round, a 21st-century interlude at the top of act two reveals the centuries-old perfidy of people in power. It’s an unnecessary addition, causing the play to seem more and more repetitive.

“The Low Road” is an epic that doesn’t follow a straight line of dramatic development. Yet it clearly indicts the indifference of the moneyed class, the “invisible hand” that propels self-interest. Mixing realism and fantasy, playwright Norris, author of the brilliant “The Pain and the Itch” and “Clybourne Park” (the latter a Pulitzer Prize winner), has a knack for revealing the true underbelly of pretentious people.

Blessed with an inventive director, Michael Greif, the evening clicks along. Meeting the script’s multiple challenges, Greif melds various styles, keeping the narrator, an awkward device at best, both unobtrusive and germane.  Even the most riotous scenes, in both senses of that word, mix comedy and drama.

In the large, admirable cast, Harriet Harris is hilarious as the doyenne of both the brothel and the modern-day conference. Max Baker is terrific as a blind Puritan, as is Kevin Chamberlin as a befuddled nouveau riche New Yorker. Chris Perfetti’s scheming Jim Trewitt is charming without begging for sympathy, while Chukwudi Iwuji as John Blanke puts the evening in his pocket.

The designs by David Korins (scenery), Ben Stanton (lighting) and Emily Rebholz (costumes) take the audience back to the 18th century with wit and without exaggeration. Even without the contemporary interlude, we get it. As Blanke says, “A nation is not a business.” Tell that to the one-percenters.

--David A. Rosenberg
March 17, 2018

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