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A CurtainUp Review
The Low Road
By Elyse Sommer
Though Norris wrote The Low Road in response to the 2007 financial crisis and it premiered in London in 2013, what's now at the Public Theater is very much a new play and not a transfer of another production. Besides script updates, the play is newly relevant, thanks to our current leaders' depressing embrace of self-interest, false religious piety, racism and financial inequality.
The playwright's naming his decidedly opportunistic Candide-like main character Jim Trumpett was coincidental rather than incredibly prescient. Even Norris, whose plays all focus on how we're all imperfect and, even when well-intentioned, likely to take the low road, didn't foresee the Trump presidency. He's made that clear by changing his anti-hero's name to Jim Trewitt.
The script overall remains a satiric journey by the bastard son of one G.Washington of Virginia who's lovingly raised by the proprietor of a Massachusetts brothel who encourages him to not just become the equal of others, but to exceed them. Of course, her motherly encouragement turns his interest in free market economics into a passion intense enough to justify thievery, which includes robbing her and augmenting his wealth by buying a slave.
While the London production had a praiseworthy cast and designers, what you'll see at the Public's Anspacher theater is a completely new and sublimely excellent team. Just seeing a cast of twenty actors is a thrill these days when small and even one-person casts are favored by artistic directors with tight budgets. In this case it's a major thrill, given how these thespians bring almost fifty characters to vibrant life.
The many characters are needed to navigate this invigorating satire, most of it set during Colonial days, but with some detours to America's very beginnings as well as modern times. While it's all quite funny, everything on this panoramic theatrical canvas illustrates how Americans through the ages have compromised their pride in America's democratic principles by exercising their inalienable right to accumulate as much wealth as possible, regardless of how this goes counter to that value system.
The picaresque adventures that drive the plot begin with the foundling, who we're led to believe is our first President's son, being left on the doorstep of the local brothel and adopted by its Madam. As we follow his rise and fall, the dramatic personae linked to hs rise and fall expands — the main link being the slave, John Blanke he buys at auction. Jim and John are literally shackled in one sequence and figuratively so in the ensuing plot developments.
While most members of this big cast zestfully inhabit several major roles, suffice it to say that all admirably individualize each part assigned to them. The three actors whose characters dominate the picaresque adventures and who don't play multiple roles are all terrific.
Mr. Norris has smartly employed Adam Smith, the renowned Scottish laissez-faire economist, as the narrator-host to guide us through the events that lead two very different men through their interlinked fates. As Smith, Daniel Davis, is alway on, eithe front and center or a hovering presence in one of the aisles. He's clearly a man fully aware that his theory about self-interest eventually enriching the whole community "as if by an invisible hand" may have been all too enthusiastically embraced. Davis could also give master classes in voice projection to some of today's actors, though I should note that his colleagues here all deliver their lines with solid clarity.
Chris Perfetti portrays the greed-is-good Jim Trewett with just a touch of charisma to take the edge of his nastiness. Chukwudi Iwuji brings Shakespearean grandeur to John Blanke, the more heroic, freedom loving slave Jim bought at auction. He's especially riveting in his final scene.
Harriet Harris, who's always a treat to watch, is a standout among the multiple role players. Her amazing hairpin turns from role to role include a very funny turn as the moderator of a modern day economists' forum.
Of course a story that roams all over the calendar and to many locations, also calls for versatile stagecraft. Fortunately, Director Michael Greif's production more than satisfies. Scenic designer David Korins fills the initially bare stage with remarkable fluidity and inventiveness. And Emily Rebholtz's numerous, period-perfect costumes provide the actors with am extra quick-change challenge. Lighting designer Ben Stanton puts the actors into a cinematic spotlight as needed, and composer Mark Bennett further supports the Brechtian aura.
Finally, no worries about a play narrated by an economist being too polemical. The dialogue by our famous economist-narrator includes just enough excerpts from Smith's theories for us to understand their effect, not just on Jim Trewett, but on our current self-interest powered zero sum society. While you don't have to brush up your economic know-how to enjoy The Low Road. , Smith's The Invisible Hand is still in print and available in an inexpensive kindle edition.
Postscript: To read our London Critic's review of The Low Road during its 2013 premiere run go here
Reviews of the Publitzer prize winning Clybourne Park and The Pain and the Itch and A Parallelogram are also in our archives: Clybourne Park. . . The Pain and the Itch. . .A Paralellogram . . .The Unmentionables
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The Low Road by Bruce Norris
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Tessa Albertson (Peg, Sister Elizabeth, Delilah Low); Max Baker (Farmer, Brother Pugh, Ed, Faraday); Kevin Chamberlin (Greasy-Haired Man, Martin, Isaac Low); Daniel Davis (Adam Smith); Crystal A. Dickinson (Old Tizzy, Mary Cleere, Ntombi); Gopal Divan (Duke of Buccleuch, Brother Amos, Pandit, Frederick); Harriet Harris (Mrs. Trewitt, Sister Comfort, Belinda, Margarita Low); Jack Hatcher (Young Jim); Josh Henderson (Violinist); Chukwudi Iwuji (John Blanke); Johnny Newcomb (Red Coat, Hessian, Court Officer); Chris Perfetti (Jim Trewitt); Susannah Perkins (Prostitute, Highwayman, Constance); Richard Poe (Shirley, Dick); Dave Quay (Manley, Hessian, Attendant, Court Officer); Aaron Michael Ray (Redcoat, Hessian, Court Officer); Joseph Soeder (Mohegan, Hessian, Court Officer); and Danny Wolohan (Slave Merchant, Poor Time, Hessian, Ivan, LaGarde).
Scenic design by David Korins
Costume design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting design by Ben Stanton
Sound design by Matt Tierney
Wig, hair, and make-up design by Jared Janas and Dave Bova
Music composition by Mark Bennett
Music Coordinator: Wayne Barker
Fight Director: Thoma Schall
Stage Manager: Laura Smith
Running time: 2 1/2 hours including 1 intermission
Public Theater 420 Lafayette Street
From 2/13/18; opening 3/07/18; closing 4/01/18
Reviwed by Elyse Sommer at March 4th press preview
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