BWW Review: Bruce Norris' Economic Commentary THE LOW ROAD is a Rollicking Anti-Candide
Teaser: There is a knockout of a surprise moment, cleverly devised and wonderfully played, contained within Pulitzer-winner Bruce Norris' mini-epic The Low Road, now getting a rollicking production at The Public, with a terrific ensemble of players guided by the talented hand of director Michael Grief.
And that's all you'll read about that here.
While the play itself is set in colonial America in the years leading up to 1776, it's the emerging Industrial Revolution that is of greater concern.
The year the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain was also the year that Scottish economist Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations," today regarded as landmark text for its description of an "invisible hand" that naturally regulates a healthy economy when freed from the privileges that allow the rich to grow richer.
THE LOW ROAD is in fact hosted by Adam Smith, played with gracious warmth by Daniel Davis, as he narrates a tale of a young abandoned lad who uses his brains and white male privilege to advance in the emerging nation. (In his program notes, The Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis perceptively describes the play as an anti-"Candide.")
Beginnings were humble, of course. The infant who would be known as Jim Trewitt was given his first home when left at the door of a Massachusetts brothel, with a note from G. Washington of Virginia, stating he will visit again in 17 years and provide a generous reward if he finds the boy was well-raised.
Under the guidance of his new mother, Dolly Trewitt (Harriet Harris, a riot, as usual) and her crotchety Caribbean servant, Tizzy (Crystal A. Dickinson), Jim grows up in an environment where women with no other marketable skills are at the financial mercy of Redcoat soldiers who expect free services in exchange for protection.
As a young lad (Jack Hatcher), in a scene that includes casual and comical use of the n-word, he demonstrates his skill at deflecting blame for his actions.
And inspired by an early draft of Smith's publication, the 17-year-old Jim (an icily authoritative Chris Perfetti), has used his subtle ruthlessness and talent for mathematics to invest the income supplied by the prostitutes, rather than fully paying them.
When it turns out that his expected visit from G. Washington of Virginia will not go as planned, Jim decides to venture to the southern colony to claim his rightful portion of the wealthy general's wealth. His preferred route incorporates the symbolism of the play's title.
But naturally, there are misadventures along the way. He purchases a slave named John Blanke (Chukwudi Iwuji), who turns out to have been the well-educated heir of a British aristocrat, and their acquaintance fuels philosophical friction.
Eventually, in a plot twist that mimics the present-day relationship between non-profit theatres like The Public and their benefactors, Blanke is funded by the wealthy Isaac Low (Kevin Chamberlin, who grandly plays an assortment of living caricatures) to produce stage shows which turn out to be criticisms of wealthy capitalists like himself.
And although much of The Low Road is meant to sound like modern ideas emerging from the minds of our 18th Century ancestors, Norris has actually changed the name of his central character, who was known as Jim Trumpett when the play premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre, so as not to be too obvious about it.
THE LOW ROAD is a sharp enough commentary on the long-lived American dream, without necessitating reminders of any newly-developed nightmares.