We are deep in an inevitable era of plays Telling Us Things. This is not a bad thing: Plays and novels have long aimed to tell us about the states of nations, as well as the characters on stage (if those characters are not themselves presidents and prime ministers).
The latest rash of such works can be put squarely at the door of Donald Trump’s presidency and all that it has come to stand for, and a quite understandable preoccupation on the part of cultural practitioners to face it head on, or obliquely.
If Bruce Norris’s The Low Road, now at New York’s Public Theater, feels part of that canon, looks can be deceiving. It was written in 2013 and first performed in London that year. It is more a response to the rapacious capitalism that precipitated the 2007-09 recession than anything focused on one person or president, though there is a reference to “golf courses” (a late add?).
Norris won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Clybourne Park, a play about race, America, and the passage of time. Wealth and wealth inequality is the focus of The Low Road, with race and history and the mirroring and concordances of past and present orbiting the filthy lucre that so obsesses its lead character.
Norris makes the narrator of the show famed Scottish economist and author Adam Smith (Daniel Davis; pointed and playful), and lead character Jim Trewitt (Chris Perfetti) the passionate proponent of the “invisible hand” Smith believed guided the individual to behave in his or her own interests rather than society’s. Trewitt certainly reflects that, with loud bells on; modern audiences will hear their own tolling of Reaganomics and Thatcherism.
The Low Road—an anti-Candide, according to Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public—seeks, in the manner of rambunctious farce, to trace the evolution and perversity of American capitalism in the picaresque figure of Trewitt.
We first meet him as a little boy (Jack Hatcher), already keen to make a profit; and then, in his adult incarnation, he is already in the late 18th century singing the praises of subprime mortgages, hundreds of years before they helped crash markets and wreck people’s lives. His parentage is a mystery, and a meaningful one. The G. Washington of Virginia his father is listed as is confused with the most famous G. Washington; but, of course, the two G. Washingtons couldn’t be more different.
The irony, for Norris, is that Founding Father George Washington’s vision of America has been supplanted by his dramatic interloper here.
Trewitt is a wonderful, odious rat. He huffs and puffs until he can blow down as many people’s houses as possible. He is a villain constantly goosed and beaten—even stripped on one occasion—yet as absurd as he is he is also venomous and determined. Norris makes us laugh at him and feel revolted by him.
He also, as the prime symbol of white male privilege, fails consistently upward to achieve his aims. His opposite and enemy is Chukwudi Iwuji’s upstanding John Blanke, a black slave who at first appears as mute though is far from it. Iwuji passionately advances an argument of wealth redistribution, and financial, gender, and social equality, something—as a possession of Trewitt’s—he is all too aware of. Blanke is not only the foil of Trewitt but also the avenger of the “invisible hand.”
The men’s arguments are played out, for comedic and dramatic effect, around sets of tables: one of a church overseen by a blind pastor, and the other of a rich New York family. Norris uses both tables to interrogate the liberal pieties and hypocrisies disparaged by Trewitt and understandably overlooked by a weary Blanke. Those pieties are based around both the color of Blanke’s skin and the lack of freedom accorded to him because of it, and also money and means.
Norris’ writing, zesty and as full of ideas as it is, feels far more replete of theory than character. There is nothing more to the characters’ lives than the political and economic profiles grafted on to them.
There are undercooked hints of personal stories, but they are jettisoned. The play is long, and despite the attractive fluidity of Michael Greif’s direction, David Korins’ kinetic design, and Ben Stanton’s lighting (just wait and see how another recurrent image of the play, bees, are visualized), The Low Road feels like a long road. A hand, visible or not, could surely have helped Norris edit this.
We are endlessly being told something. Often repeatedly. The play has a kind of static, theoretical airlessness to it. This is underlined by an opening of Act II conceit that finds us at a modern-day conference with one of Trewitt’s descendants, a guest on a panel of massively rich capitalists.
Apart from one panelist, they all advance views of an unapologetically free market—and they are unshaken by pointed questions from those opposed to them in the audience, although they are scattered by a group of anti-capitalist protesters.
The intention of the scene is to draw a direct line from the late 18th century to the present day, but our biggest laugh is reserved for Smith, who returns to the stage to narrate us back to the 18th century apologetically. He’s right to sound sorry: The modern-day interruption is an unnecessary sledgehammer to smash an unnecessary nut. Throughout you feel: We get it.
The performers gamely plow through the ranging two and a half hours. Susannah Perkins plays an 18th century #MeToo victim of abuse, an effectively played but tokenistically deployed vignette. The moderator of that modern-day panel is played by Harriet Harris, who, like many of the acting company, plays multiple characters. Harris is notably wonderful, playing Trewitt’s adoptive mother, a rich liberal New Yorker, and a modern-day panel moderator whose one-word showily arch interjections like “Controversial” are little comic bombs in themselves.
At the end we are left with the victory of Adam Smith’s invisible hand in Trewitt’s living, very rich, and uncaring relative, and a visible legacy of financial, racial, and gender inequalities. That, for Norris, is the perversion of the social contract that has persisted from America’s founding; the triumph of rampant individualism over principled equity. And what does that leave us with in The Low Road? For Norris, a sense of angry mourning.
The Low Road runs until April 1 at the Public Theater, New York City. Book tickets here.