By: Isa Goldberg
An epic gaze into the love of wealth, Bruce Norris’ new play The Low Road at The Public Theater is dramatically quite fabulous. In it, the prophet of free market economy, Adam Smith (Daniel Davies), plays a central role, narrating the action, from a seemingly omniscient point of view. Waving an “invisible hand” over the corrupt machinations of these 18th century businessmen, he is a cunning curator, in a world of fraudulent dealings.
Set in and around the American Revolution, these early American settlers trade freely in human lives. Native populations are denied their land, African men and women are kidnapped and forced into slavery, women are raped, and justice is defined by economic might. Indeed, these are only a few of the issues at the cornerstone of Norris’ episodic tale.
As narrative, the story twists and dives into so many fractured subplots that it defies literal translation. To make matters more complex, the production sports 18 actors playing 48 roles. Like John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, Low Road abounds in historical and literary allusions, theatrical trickery, and flagrant showmanship. And both are winding narratives that are as opaque as they are politically hard hitting.
At the center of Low Road, a poor orphaned boy, Jim Trewitt is discovered at infancy by a madam of a whore house (Harriet Harris), with a note by his side that his father is G. Washington of Virginia. Clues, inferences, and associations pile up with some openly camp humor driving the action.
Moving out into the world, Trewitt (true wit?), played by Chris Perfetti acquires a slave, John Blanke (Chuk Iwuji), who it turns out, is the well healed, one-time heir to a British aristocrat. But when the two find themselves in a religious commune, the Dickensian world begins to explode. So, Jim and his newly purchased “pre-owned” slave move on to more productive adventures, only to find themselves at the merciless hands of Hessians, German troupes who are fighting on the British side.
If anything is obvious here, it’s motive – the motive to acquire wealth. In Act II, the play turns to a modern-day symposium, in which a panel of successful businessman discuss the virtues of a market that is making them so wealthy, at the expense of most of mankind.
After this, we return to tie up some of the main plot points, when out of the blue, the narrative unfolds into a nightmarish expose. Enormous bug puppets with head lights arrive to take over a failing planet. It’s a fitting outcome for the irresponsible and self-serving lives of the very rich.
Directed with great abandon by Michael Grief, this irreverent, fast paced satire, is a sprawling mess of a play. With stand-out performances by Chuk Iwuji as Blanke, Kevin Chamberlin in a variety of seemingly contradictory roles, including the Greasy-Haired Man and the sanctimonious bigot, Isaac Low. Harriet Harris is delightful as the wise and voracious madam, as well as the harried moderator of the panel on world economies. And Chris Perfetti as Trewitt brightens the stage with energy and daring.
The Low Road **1/2
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street, New York.
(212) 967-7555 Photos: Joan Marcus