By Brian Scott Lipton
The leading provocateur of his generation, playwright Bruce Norris (best known for “Clybourne Park”) has never been afraid to look his audiences in the proverbial eye and tell them the truth about their worst qualities –while also allowing them at times, to laugh uproariously at the foibles of “other people.”
Never has this been more true than in The Low Road, his brilliant and hilarious screed about greed, racism, hypocrisy and a few other non-deadly sins, now making its long overdue American debut at the Public Theater. Penned in the manner of a picaresque novel like “Huckleberry Finn,” the play (first presented in London in 2013) concerns the short if eventful life of the illegitimate Jim Trewitt (a perfectly callow Chris Perfetti).
As a young child, living in a brothel, Jim stumbles upon the words of the great economist Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and grows up to blindly adopt his philosophies (including minimizing the role of taxation in the free markets, and the idea that an “invisible hand” guides the laws of supply and demand). In practice, this results in Jim doing everything from bartering with gusto when buying the slave John Blanke (the extraordinary Chukwudi Iwuji in a galvanizing turn) –who turns out to be far different than advertised — to cheating a well-meaning if none-too-bright clergyman and ruining the finances of a later benefactor, all without the slightest sense of apology.
Intriguingly, Jim’s story is told with one major interruption, as the second act opens with a current-day global financial conference, featuring one of Jim’s descendants. Listening to these nattering nabobs, we realize first-hand how Smith’s principles are not only still in action, but also how they helped cause the last great recession (and may lead to a new one) and fostered the current 99 percent versus 1 percent mentality. Dramatically, this shift three hundred years forward is a bit jarring, but it certainly adds even more arrows to Norris’ packed quiver. Indeed, no target is safe from Norris – there’s even a short diatribe against playgoers delivered by John – who rarely misses the bullseye.
If the smart and savvy text isn’t enough cause for wonder, there’s the brilliantly fluid direction of Michael Grief, the spectacularly clever set by designer David Korins, and the stunning versatility of the cast in which 15 actors, including such theatrical stalwarts as Max Baker and Richard Poe, play numerous roles with ease. (Other than Perfetti and Iwuji, the only performer whose character remains constant throughout the proceedings is the delicious Daniel Davis, who acts as the show’s narrator – who, you got it, happens to be Adam Smith!)
As might be expected, Tony Award winner Harriet Harris is consistently sublime, whether playing dimwitted brothel owner Dorothy Trewitt, society matron Margarita Low, or conference moderator Belinda. Broadway veteran Kevin Chamberlin superbly swings both high (as Margarita’s wealthy husband Isaac) and low (as a thief who robs the Trewitts) with equal aplomb, as does Crystal A. Dickinson, excellent as both Dorothy’s half-blind servant and John’s “true love” Mary Cleere, who becomes the mistress of the obviously odious LaGrande.
Naturally, even the most noble among us don’t like our faults pointed out to us. But sit back, breathe, and absorb the bumps and take the lumps, for this “Road” must be travelled!
Photos: Joan Marcus
The Low Road will run through Sunday, April 1 at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.