Monday, March 12, 2018

176 (2017-2018): Review: THE LOW ROAD (seen March 10, 2018)

"What Rising Tide?"

The Low Road is Pulitzer Prize-winner Bruce Norris’s (Clybourne Park) uniquely engaging, satirically didactic, everyman’s primer regarding the impact of Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s (The Wealth of Nations) laissez-faire theory on American capitalism. It could as easily have been titled The History of Jim Trewitt, A Foundling.

Kevin Chamberlin, Harriet Harris, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Like Fielding’s great picaresque 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, Norris’s play, which shares some of Fielding’s ribaldry and is set only a few years after Tom Jones, begins by introducing its roguish hero as an infant in swaddling clothes; unlike Tom, who’s been left by his indigent mother in the home of a wealthy family, Jim is abandoned by his rascally father, one G. Washington of Virginia (Kevin Chamberlin), to the care of a brothel madam, Mrs. Trewitt (the marvelous Harriet Harris).
Daniel Davis (left), Harriet Harris (center), Crystal A. Dickinson (right), and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the goodhearted Tom grows older, his sexual appetite embroils him in a series of bedroom escapades; on the other hand, Jim’s (Chris Perfetti) mathematical talent gives him a rapacious hunger for economic self-enrichment, regardless of who gets hurt. His determined selfishness eventually inspires him to rail against taxation or any sort of social welfare for the poor. The distasteful light Jim shines on today’s corporate greed is bound to his skewed understanding of Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand,” which, as the phrase goes, creates a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Crystal A. Dickinson, Chris Perfetti, Harriet Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
And who better to serve as the avuncular narrator of Jim’s many adventures than Smith himself, played with deliciously winking charm by the mellifluously voiced Daniel Davis, decked out in white wig and fancy colonial-era duds?

Over the course of two and a half episodic hours, during which old-fashioned language mingles anachronistically with 20th-century profanity, a cast of 17 (playing over 50 roles, with a violinist thrown in for good measure), takes us through the rise and fall of Jim Trewitt during the 18 years from 1758 to 1776.  
Chikwudi Iwuji, Chris Perfetti. Photo: Joan Marcus.
 Hanging monitors placed around the Public’s Anspacher Theater inform us throughout of the year and place, beginning with our view of  Jim as a child (Jack Hatcher) revealing his prodigious calculating abilities and grasping nature. When old enough to go off on his own, he purchases a deaf black slave, John Blanke (the outstanding Chukwudi Iwuji). John turns out not to be deaf at all, and is actually an erudite, British-accented speaker of the King’s English, albeit guilty of his own overbearing affectations.
Chikwudi Uwuji, Max Baker. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Jim makes and loses fortunes, he brandishes a document that gives him reason to believe his father is George Washington; is robbed and stripped naked only to be rescued by a blind religious leader, Brother Pugh (Max Baker), and his charitable congregation; is nearly executed by Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War; becomes professionally attached to a wealthy New York family, and so on, until his eventual demise. Along the way, Norris introduces not only a plague but aliens from out of space!
Tessa Albertson, Danny Wolohan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each situation in the two and a half hour play has something to do with subjects like property, wealth, usury, theft, and human equality, particularly with regard to income disparity. Act One is played entirely in the 18th century but, following an intermission, the second act jolts us into the present day where we observe a televised panel discussion among a group of global economists at the Forum for Economic Progress, a Davos-like summit. Here, the self-satisfied, free-market advocates defend their voracious appetites until an outburst of political anger ends the scene and rockets us back to 250 or so years earlier.
Tessa Albertson, Daniel Davis, Kevin Chamberlin, Harriet Harris. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Given that the play’s occasionally metatheatrical style and Smith’s specific references already make perfectly clear its contemporary relevance, Norris is gilding the lily here with an unnecessary distraction. It’s thus a relief to return to the 18th century for the resolution of Jim’s fate, and that of Jim’s foil, John, who represents the opposite side of Jim’s coin.

All this is played with supreme confidence and panache by a versatile, well-drilled company speaking, as appropriate, in British, American, and German accents. Under Michael Greif’s outstanding direction, The Low Road is given the kind of story theatre presentation one sometimes sees in adaptations of famous novels such as David Edgars’s 1980 version of Nicholas Nickleby.
Chikwudi Iwuji, Crystal A. Dickinson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
An open setting in the three-quarters round, beautifully designed by David Korins and perfectly lit by Ben Stanton, allows the action to proceed at a swift, energetic pace, with furnishings and other scenic elements brought on and off with smoothly coordinated alacrity. Emily Rebholz’s numerous period costumes (her modern ones as well) ideally define each character, and Mark Bennet’s music captures just the right historical and emotional tone.
Chikwudu Iwuji, Kevin Chamberlin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Chris Perfetti is perfectly cast as the comically ambitious, innocent-looking, but ruthlessly acquisitive Jim. Chukwudi Iwuji brings passion and elocutionary distinction to John, while the supporting company demonstrates memorable versatility in multiple roles, especially Kevin Chamberlain, Harriet Harris, Max Baker, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Richard Poe.

Interestingly, Norris’s first version of the play, produced in London in 2013, called Trewitt Trumpett. This was well before the election of our current president, of course, but when that turn of events arrived the playwright wisely chose to change it. A line about “golf courses” stands out as perhaps a later addition. It matters little, though, as this Trumpett by any other name is still off-key.


Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through April 1