The Low Road by Bruce Norris
At the Public Theater on Lafayette Street off of Cooper Square
BSonArts Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 93
“The Low Road” is a fascinating look at our current economic trends through the eyes of an 18th century youth who takes some of the words of one of the most influential economic philosophers of his time, Adam Smith, and turns them into a rationale for an amoral approach to capitalism. Bruce Norris’ play is a sort of epic historical fiction designed to critique and connect us to the excesses and misguided presumptions about our current economics – and it could not come at a more relevant time as our nation faces renewed challenges to our view of the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Oscar Eustis, in his Public Theater Artistic Director program notes, provides a useful framework for Mr. Norris’ style and structure. Mr. Norris has “written a rollicking picaresque adventure, a kind of anti-Candide.” Indeed, the would-be young capitalist, Jim Trewitt, goes on an adventure through colonial America, moving from one location to another, and, at each stop along the way, tries to build his fortune, honestly and dishonestly, only to end up with neither capital nor dignity.
The baby Trewitt is left on the door step of a colonial “madam.” She takes him in believing he is related to George Washington and that her reward for housing Jim will be substantial. Jim is very smart and, at a crucial moment in his development, he misreads Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” “By pursuing his own interest,” as Smith describes the capitalist, “he frequently promotes that of the society more than he really intends to promote it… I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Thus, we have the one of the earliest arguments for the trickle-down theory.
But while Smith argued that competition in the free market would inevitably benefit society, he also warned against businessmen in their “conspiracy against the public or in some other contrivance to raise prices” (think the American drug industry!). More importantly, Smith asserted that the pursuit of self-interest must function within “conditions of justice.” And that is where the young Jim Trewitt becomes a reflection of our contemporary CEOs who see their role as profit at any cost to the well-being of our society (again, think of our drug industry and the opiate crisis). Jim sees no ethical or moral restriction on his pursuit of wealth and Norris shows us both the terrible consequences of such a perspective as well as its futility. Like Candide, Trewitt’s pursuits are frustrated at every turn; but unlike Candide, his efforts only lead to ruin, not enlightenment.
There is little doubt that Norris expects us to see this play as an indictment of the fallacies and excesses of Smith’s philosophy and its continued influence on American economics. The action of the play is narrated by Adam Smith, played with delightful wit and appropriate authority by Danial Davis. Norris uses another 18th century historical reality to counter Trewitt’s viewpoint: slavery. As Jim sets off on his journey to make his fortune, he needs someone to carry his belongings – and after all, is not the presence of servants a sure sign of wealth? He uses the money he embezzled from his adopted mother, “the madam,” to purchase a slave, John Blanke. Norris uses the conflicts between Jim and John to illustrate the good and the bad. And by the end of the play, Jim is an outcast from society and society is adjusting to, if not totally welcoming, John.
The play has been labeled a satire. While satire usually raises smirks rather than laughs, I found Norris’ drama to be historical fiction with current social and political overtones. Regardless of its genre, “The Low Road” is totally engaging with a timely critique of our economic and social values. It is not intended as a Trump commentary. In fact, to avoid a direct connection with our current President, Norris changed the name of the lead character from Jim Trumpett in the original 2013 London production to Jim Trewitt for its American premiere so that audiences would see the play as a refutation of much more basic and long-term American beliefs and values.
Director Michael Greif has staged the complex action of the play with style and lucidity. We are swept into this 18th century world while still grounded in our 21st century morass. The cast of 18, with many actors playing two or three roles, is uniformly flawless (and only a not-for-profit like The Public could bring us such a large and rich cast). Chris Perfetti shows us Trewitt’s innocence and naiveté laced with an amoral and self-consumed world view. Chukwudi Iwuji portrayal of John Blanke pulls at the audience’s desire for reason and justice in a world where economic class eclipses equity. Harriet Harris’s performance as Jim’s adopted mother (and three other characters as the epic unfolds) is especially impressive. But all of the roles are inhabited by actors with a fine sense of detail and clarity. The sets and costumes provide a feeling of authenticity and the relative intimacy of the Anspacher theater makes a large epic drama into a personal experience.
“The Low Road” is an ambitious piece of theater that actually fulfills its ambitions. If only our nation could see its historical heritage as a lesson for our future. In the words of Candide, that “would make our garden grow.”